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New Investigator Digest

Posted By Connections Editor, Friday, April 21, 2017

Brexit and Science - Many Uncertainties Remain:
an Interview with Bertie Göttgens and Michael Milsom

Simon Haas, Heather O’Leary, Eric Pietras, Cédric Tremblay and Sofie Singbrant-Söderberg

The referendum held on the 23rd of June 2016 in the United Kingdom will go down in history; 52% of the British citizens voted for leaving the European Union (EU). The British exit from the EU (Brexit) process has been initiated and should be finalized within the next two years. Since the EU is a political and economic union with common laws, and free movement of people, capital and goods in a common market, Brexit is expected to have far-reaching implications on economy, society and politics in the UK, as well as in the rest of the EU. Brexit will most likely have a large impact on science and the lives of scientists too. The EU provides wide funding regiments for research. For example, the EU funding program Horizon 2020 and the main EU funding body for science, the European Research Council (ERC), provide an estimated €24 billion for basic research funding over a 7-year period. The EU fosters EU-wide collaborations, helps young researchers to gain and consolidate independence, and is one of the most important funders for student and postdoctoral fellowships. Furthermore, citizens of EU member states have the freedom to move and work in any other EU country, facilitating the exchange of PhD students, postdocs and principle investigators within the member states.

Many uncertainties remain with regard to the impact of Brexit on science and scientists. How will EU funding and mobility of researchers be restricted upon UK’s withdrawal from the EU? And will the attractiveness of the UK decrease when it comes to recruiting talented researchers?

To gain further insight we asked two renowned scientists working in the fields of hematology and stem cell research how they think Brexit will impact their research, as well as their personal lives. Both exemplify the geographic mobility granted to researchers by the UK's membership in the EU, and each now finds themselves in a country different from their place of birth. Bertie Göttgens is a German citizen, leading a research group at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Conversely, Michael Milsom is a UK citizen leading a research group at the German Cancer Research Center and HI-STEM in Heidelberg, Germany.

Bertie Göttgens – a German group leader in the UK:

What was your first reaction when you heard that British citizens voted for leaving the EU?
I flew to the ISSCR meeting on the day of the referendum. Crossing London, there was an abundance of “Remain” posters, but I knew the referendum could go either way. When I arrived at the airport in San Francisco, I connected my phone to the WIFI, and saw the first results had come in, and the predictions were that the vote had gone for “Leave”. I was agitated and upset. When I arrived back in England, for the first couple of weeks, I kept thinking when walking down the streets that every other person I see doesn’t want me to stay here. This is particularly frustrating as I had experienced the UK as an open and welcoming society, and in fact have not noticed any change in the way I am treated (of note, the city of Cambridge voted over 80% “Remain”). I know from listening to the news that experiences of EU nationals in other parts of the UK have been much more negative.

How is Brexit impacting on your research / funding?
It is too early to say. The government increased the funding for research in their first budget after the Brexit vote. Also, I have never directly received European Union funding, so my group would see no difference if the UK stops being a partner in EU or ERC programs.

I think it will become harder to recruit the best talent to come and work in the UK, at least until the dust has settled. One advantage I have is that I work at the University of Cambridge, which over its 800 years of existence has got through some very turbulent times, and I am confident will remain a very attractive place to do research in future.

How is Brexit impacting on your personal situation / life?
I am getting British citizenship, and my children are getting German passports. That way we will remain free to work and live in either the UK or EU. The pound sterling has lost 15% in value, so holidays abroad will be more expensive.

Is Brexit impacting on students or postdocs in your group?
My research group is 17 strong, with 7 British, 8 rest of the EU and 2 non EU. There clearly will be some uncertainty until we get more clarity on the future relationship between the UK and EU.

What do you think might be the implications for the UK as a research site?
Again, too early to say. For example, it is not clear what the UK government will do with the money that is currently sent to Brussels to be spent on research administered through the EU and ERC. If the money remains dedicated for research but administered through the UK, I think this could work out well since I personally have been frustrated about the way the EU spends research money (except for the ERC). For example, I was a small partner in two Horizon 2020 submissions in 2015, which I thought was the most ridiculous grant review process I have ever seen. There were two rounds, with 50% of the proposals filtered out at the first round. Then, the remaining applicants were asked to put in a huge amount of work and put together full proposals of 200 pages for the second round, yet at the second round 95% were thrown out. What a colossal waste of time by applicants, reviewers and grant panels! Why not throw out 90 or 95% in the first round? And at such a low funding rate, there is always the suspicion that what ultimately gets funded is about politics as much as science.

So, as long as the UK continues to ring-fence its previous contribution for EU-funded research to still spend on research, it should not be too difficult to do a much better job with it than for example Horizon 2020. The worry is that the UK economy will suffer generally, and then ring-fencing money for research may not be a high priority. There are also some areas where international collaboration is vital, such as clinical trials where a single country just does not have enough patients for a given disease. Hopefully, ways can be found that UK scientists can continue to collaborate on such initiatives with their EU colleagues.

In the short term, the potentially most detrimental impact I can see is that the top European young investigators wanting to return from the US to Europe may be reluctant to come to the UK. The UK has been a really strong base for science, but this can only be maintained if underpinned constantly by bringing in the best young talent.

Michael Milsom – a British group leader in Germany

What was your first reaction when you heard that British citizens voted for leaving the EU?

I remember that my wife (who is also British) and I went to bed on the evening of the referendum and, based on the last-minute polling results, felt relatively reassured that a remain majority would be returned. My wife woke me up at 3am and told me it looked like the vote was going in the direction of leave. We just couldn’t get back to sleep after that and spent the rest of the early hours (as well as the next days, weeks and months) speculating about what this would mean for our family, our native and adopted country, and Europe as a whole. I would say that surprise, shock and worry were our initial emotional responses to the outcome. This was quickly replaced by an overriding sense of frustration that both the leave and remain campaigns hadn’t exactly been providing the electorate with much factual information on which to base their decision. If there is anything I have learned from this, and other recent political events, it’s that democratic societies need to strive towards making sure their citizens are equipped to discern fact from fiction and can identify what is a trustworthy source of information, regardless of whether it fits in with their pre-existing ideas or politics. I could probably come to accept the outcome of the referendum a little better if I felt that the majority of the voters were making an informed decision.

How is Brexit impacting on your research / funding?
As I write this, the UK government has just formally notified the EU of its intent to leave, so not much has changed yet. In the longer run, I really have no idea how this is going to impact on my research since the possible outcomes of the negotiations which will determine how the UK leaves the EU are not clear, and will likely take a long time to resolve. As a British citizen working in continental Europe, in an international research institution with a work force made up of all EU nationalities, I am clearly concerned about potential restrictions of freedom of movement. Also, there is likely to be an extended period of financial instability across Europe and this may well impact on how much funding there is available for research. Having said that, one of the reasons that I decided to establish my group in Germany in the first place was that the state chooses to prioritize funding research and technology development, with the longer term view that this will help drive the economy. I’m confident that Germany will sustain this policy and remain a welcoming environment for international scientists to live and work.

How is Brexit impacting on your personal situation / life?
Again, nothing much has changed at the moment, but we spend a lot of time speculating (and worrying) about how this might impact on us. All five of us have UK citizenship, so worst case scenario, my wife and I would have to get visas to continue to live and work in Germany. This would then complicate (and potentially compromise) our access to things such as free education for the children, healthcare, sickness and unemployment benefit and the like. We’re currently seriously considering what we need to get in place in the next two years in order to be eligible to apply for German citizenship. I definitely need to prioritize improving my German, as I don’t think the language test is going to exclusively focus on my ability to order food and drink at restaurants and the shops!

Is Brexit impacting on students or postdocs in your group?
Apart from myself, I don’t currently have any other British citizens in my group, but do have employees from across a range of EU and non-EU countries. Although there isn’t going to be any direct impact on their ability to live and work in Germany, the UK has traditionally been a powerhouse of European life sciences research and any restrictions on my people’s ability to travel to the UK and interact with our British collaboration partners would clearly be detrimental.

What do you think might be the implications for the UK as a research site?
I think only time will tell. I don’t think anybody has a really good idea what the result of the UK-EU negotiations will be. As I’ve mentioned above, I think that funding and international mobility are two of the key areas that may be compromised by Brexit and negatively impact on the UK research community. In the short term, I think that the uncertainty about what will happen is quickly going to figure into scientist’s decisions about whether they want to start or continue working in the UK. This is one of my greatest fears as, since I was trained in the UK, I recognize that one of the main reasons it has really punched above its weight in biomedical research has been its ability to recruit and retain excellent scientists from all over the world.

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