Brexit un­cer­tain­ties threaten brain drain for UK sci­ence Job se­cu­rity and re­search prospects up in the air

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH -

Like many for­eign sci­en­tists in Bri­tain, Joanna Bag­niewska was dev­as­tated when Bri­tons voted to leave the Euro­pean Union. The bi­ol­ogy lec­turer, a Pol­ish mi­grant who found Bri­tain a wel­com­ing place to build her aca­demic ca­reer over a decade, is sud­denly see­ing her job se­cu­rity and re­search prospects up in the air.

"I'm wor­ried that af­ter my cur­rent con­tract fin­ishes, one of the pre­req­ui­sites could be a per­ma­nent res­i­dence card," she said. "I'd like to ap­ply for EU grant money, but how much longer will it be avail­able for?"

Bri­tain's top uni­ver­si­ties have long been among the world's most sought-af­ter des­ti­na­tions for study and re­search, draw­ing the bright­est minds from all cor­ners of the globe. But since Bri­tons voted in June to leave the 28na­tion EU, many in the sci­ence com­mu­nity say the UK risks los­ing the money, the in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence - and cru­cially, the tal­ent - to sus­tain that en­vi­able po­si­tion.

More than one-tenth of re­search fund­ing at Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties has come from the EU in re­cent years. Some fields - such as nan­otech­nol­ogy and can­cer re­search - are more de­pen­dent on EU fund­ing than oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by tech­nol­ogy firm Dig­i­tal Sci­ence. From 2007 to 2013, Bri­tain re­ceived 8.8 bil­lion Eu­ros ($9.4 bil­lion) in di­rect EU in­vest­ment in re­search.

Up­set for the fu­ture

Bag­niewska is not just anx­ious about her­self - she's up­set for her stu­dents' fu­ture too, for the op­por­tu­ni­ties that both Bri­tons and for­eign­ers will likely miss out on when un­fet­tered mo­bil­ity be­tween Bri­tain and Europe can no longer be taken for granted. "They were just get­ting ex­cited about do­ing their mas­ters and PhDs in other coun­tries. And then Brexit hap­pened and they just got tram­pled," she said.

Sci­en­tists and re­searchers ar­gue that be­ing part of the EU has given Bri­tish sci­ence a huge boost be­cause it al­lows Bri­tain to re­cruit the best tal­ent across Europe and take part in im­por­tant re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions and stu­dent ex­changes with­out be­ing con­strained by na­tional bound­aries. The bloc's free­dom of move­ment means its 500 mil­lion peo­ple can live and work visa-free in any mem­ber state. No one knows yet what form Bri­tain's exit from the EU - com­monly known as Brexit - is go­ing to take, but im­mi­gra­tion was a key is­sue for "Leave" vot­ers. Many be­lieve some limit should be put on the num­ber of EU cit­i­zens mov­ing to Bri­tain.

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May has vowed to re­assert con­trol over Bri­tish bor­ders. She has of­fered no firm guar­an­tees for the rights of Euro­peans al­ready liv­ing in Bri­tain, an uncer­tainty that weighs heav­ily over the 32,000 Euro­peans who make up 16 per­cent of the aca­demic work­force in Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties. Many uni­ver­si­ties say the rhetoric over im­mi­gra­tion con­trol is also jeop­ar­diz­ing re­cruit­ment of re­searchers and stu­dents from fur­ther afield.

Sci­en­tists for EU, an ad­vo­cacy group, says it has re­ceived over 400 let­ters from re­searchers de­scrib­ing how Brexit has al­ready im­pacted their life and work. Some are los­ing doc­toral stu­dents who pulled out of stu­dentships and job of­fers. Aca­demics are putting plans to re­lo­cate to Bri­tain on hold. One said their em­ployer, a Lon­don univer­sity, im­me­di­ately im­posed a tem­po­rary hir­ing freeze, cit­ing un­cer­tain­ties about stu­dent re­cruit­ment and re­search in­come.

Adam Dur­rant, a Bri­tish en­tre­pre­neur who founded an aerospace startup sup­ply­ing cli­mate data to air­lines and air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers, says he's now con­sid­er­ing mov­ing some of his busi­ness to a EU coun­try out­side of Bri­tain. Part of the rea­son, he says, is that Brexit will likely make hir­ing the right peo­ple much harder than be­fore.

"In the fu­ture, it prob­a­bly means that peo­ple would be less in­ter­ested to come to the UK to work," said Dur­rant. "There's a huge ques­tion mark over my com­pany and my own per­sonal fu­ture. I will cer­tainly re­tain a UK pres­ence, but my com­pany's fo­cus of grav­ity may shift else­where."

Sci­en­tists say some UK-based re­searchers are al­ready be­ing ex­cluded from joint bids for EU fund­ing to min­i­mize the risks for their col­leagues.

Paul Crowther, head of physics and as­tron­omy at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, said a re­searcher from his depart­ment was dropped from an EU grant pro­posal as a pre­cau­tion fol­low­ing the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. The vote "put the UK-based re­searchers in a very awk­ward po­si­tion" and their par­tic­i­pa­tion in EU-funded pro­grams could "com­pro­mise the project," he was told. "The ero­sion of UK in­volve­ment in EU net­works has al­ready be­gun, with both the UK and EU sci­ence worse off," Crowther said.

Apart from a loss of grant money, Brexit will likely cause Bri­tish sci­en­tists and re­search cen­ters to miss out on shared data­bases and in­fra­struc­ture. "Large-scale ef­forts like stud­ies of rare ge­netic dis­eases, the build­ing of large fa­cil­i­ties, are ar­eas that multi­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions do much bet­ter," said Venki Ra­makr­ish­nan, a No­bel Prize-win­ning bi­ol­o­gist and pres­i­dent of Bri­tain's pres­ti­gious Royal So­ci­ety.

The EU is an im­por­tant source of re­search fund­ing for Bri­tain, which lags be­hind many de­vel­oped coun­tries in state in­vest­ment in sci­ence. In 2014, Bri­tain's gov­ern­ment spent un­der 0.5 per­cent of its GDP on re­search - be­low the Euro­pean av­er­age, and half that of South Korea.

May's gov­ern­ment is clearly aware of the jit­ters. She has promised to in­crease an­nual in­vest­ment in re­search by 2 bil­lion pounds ($2.4 bil­lion) by 2020, in hopes her coun­try can re­main a world leader in sci­ence and in­no­va­tion.

Dur­rant is doubt­ful that's enough to make a big dif­fer­ence. "Two bil­lion a year spread across ev­ery­thing isn't go­ing to go very far," he said. Sim­i­lar anx­i­eties are be­ing felt at the un­der­grad­u­ate level. The 125,000 Euro­pean stu­dents study­ing at Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties now pay the same fees as lo­cals and have ac­cess to the same gov­ern­ment loans. Of­fi­cials have promised this will not change for those ap­ply­ing next year - but no one knows what will hap­pen af­ter that.

Fewer Euro­pean stu­dents ap­peared to be ap­ply­ing for some of Bri­tain's most com­pet­i­tive univer­sity cour­ses, in­clud­ing medicine and places at Oxford and Cam­bridge. In Septem­ber, the ad­mis­sion ser­vice UCAS re­ported a 9 per­cent drop in EU ap­pli­ca­tions for Bri­tish un­der­grad­u­ate cour­ses start­ing in 2017.

Some ar­gue that Bri­tain could be­come like Switzer­land, an "as­so­ciate" EU state that is opt­ing out of free move­ment of peo­ple while still tak­ing part in lim­ited Euro­pean sci­ence projects.

"It's not all doom and gloom - but it will be harder," Ra­makr­ish­nan said. "We could make a go of it out­side the EU. But for that to hap­pen, we have to at­tract tal­ent and fund sci­ence. And those two things are crit­i­cal."— AP

ENG­LAND: In this photo taken on Fri­day, Dec 2, 2016, univer­sity lec­turer Joanna Bag­niewska looks at a tiger skull at the Zool­ogy depart­ment of the Univer­sity of Reading. — AP

Mov­ing for the EU

TRINGGADING, ACEH PROV­INCE, In­done­sia: Sur­vivors per­form Fri­day prayer at a Jami Quba mosque which was se­verely dam­aged dur­ing Wed­nes­day's earth­quake on Fri­day, Dec 9, 2016. — AP

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