Deal or no deal: Brexit hurts scientists

Two and a half years ago, just days after the referendum, we asked colleagues to share their thoughts on Brexit. Back then the heartbreak and shock were fresh, but the far-reaching consequences had become apparent quite quickly. Those who hoped that due to the very close result (I would not advise any policy maker to even consider making decisions based on such a study result, nor would we build theories on such weak and inconclusive grounds!) that Article 50 would never be triggered were disappointed almost two years ago. That means the deadline for leaving the EU with or without a deal is almost here. We, as fans and beneficiaries of the EU, thus asked ourselves what it is like right now to be a researcher in the UK and are grateful to our anonymous friend, Remaining researcher, who shares their story and viewpoint from within the UK. Our hearts go out to all our colleagues who only got to lose, be it with or without a deal…

“The morning after the Brexit referendum I woke up to a punch in the stomach. In the wee-small hours I’d fallen asleep warm and peaceful after listening to Farage concede defeat for the leave vote. He was wrong. I arrived at the conference I had been attending for the past two days after having listened with some satisfaction but an equal dose of shame to the UK prime minister resign live on radio as our American keynote speaker sat behind me in the car. Twenty minutes later, non-British attendees were eyeing British colleagues with an air of hushed astonishment; standing in coffee queues I heard my past and future dissected in awe-struck whispers. A few hours later, fellow postdocs began asking me about EU funding, about mobility and collaboration. I skipped the conference dinner. Over the following weeks I spent painful hours with friends trying to persuade them that not everyone in the UK hates immigrants. Then, as the months unrolled I watched glumly as friends, colleagues and mentors started looking for jobs outside the UK, and then started leaving.

Two years later we’re no closer to knowing what our futures are. As academics, international collaboration is fundamental to our careers and more importantly to the furthering of scientific understanding. Even before we leave the EU, we’re seeing the effects of the crippling uncertainty wrought by the leave vote and the UK government’s subsequent infighting and obfuscation. The recruitment of EU students is being affected at a time when student recruitment across the board is precarious. As I write, the UK Labour party is collapsing, so I now don’t know who I’d vote for if (if!) a general election is called. We do not know whether we’ll be able to recruit the best research staff after March. We do not know what access we’ll have to EU funding, meaning UK researchers are already being removed from international funding applications. Many of our collaborators are hurt and insulted. Everyone is frustrated. Confidence in the UK as a good place to do science has been eroded; and even if (if!) a second referendum is called and there’s a swing to remain, the damage has been done.

The roots of the leave vote are complex and much-debated. Voters across the board were given misleading information by our politicians, people we should be able to trust, but have learned that we can’t. Contrary some of the narratives surrounding Brexit, not all leave voters are right-wing, not all leave voters are poorly-informed, and not all leave voters are racist. It upsets me deeply to think this could now be the general opinion of the UK voting public. But nonetheless, the leave vote has already damaged UK science. As academics we have to understand why so many people feel disenfranchised and angry, and to demand our politicians take these problems seriously. I don’t know where we’ll go from here, but the only future I want for UK academia on in which preserve the international collaborations and friendships that the UK’s membership of the EU allowed us to nurture.”



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