This is our response to the House of Commons S&T Committee's inquiry Brexit, Science and Innovation: Preparations for No-Deal.
Published 29 January 2019
- No-deal must be avoided at all costs. It would set back scientific progress significantly and damage the UK’s close research links with Europe and the rest of the world.
- Instead, the government must ensure that provisions are in place post-Brexit to enable scientists to move easily across Europe, participate fully in EU Framework Programmes and work seamlessly with partners across the channel.
- The Francis Crick Institute is dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Our state-of-the-art building in central London brings together 1,500 scientists, students and support staff working across disciplines, making it the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe. We are multinational and have a diverse, open and international institute, with staff from more than 70 countries.
The importance of collaboration in science
- Collaboration and international partnership underpin great science. Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, recently said that Britain’s research success is “built on deep partnerships with other countries”. The Crick was designed to support joint working and our location opposite St Pancras Station enhances our international links.
- The UK and EU have a particularly strong research relationship. More than half of the UK’s collaborative papers are with EU partners. UK cancer survival has doubled in the last 40 years, much of which was made possible by the free flow of talented scientists around Europe. Between 2004 and 2016, the UK collaborated on over 4,800 clinical trials with at least one other EU country. Evidence shows that geographical proximity enhances scientific collaboration and mobility between countries.,
The impact of a no-deal Brexit
- The treatments and cures of tomorrow are grounded in today’s science. Brexit puts that at risk and the government must avoid a no-deal scenario. While the Crick is prepared for any short-term impacts and has measures in place to manage our supply chain, the long-term impact of no-deal would set back scientific progress significantly. 97% of Crick scientists think a no-deal Brexit would be bad for UK science.
- No-deal would mean that there are no arrangements in place to support the movement of scientists between the UK and EU. UK-based researchers would be unable to apply for European Research Council (ERC) grants and some Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions for the remainder of Horizon 2020. UK access to future Framework Programmes including Horizon Europe would be uncertain. No-deal would limit the UK’s ability to negotiate access to the portal and database underpinning the forthcoming EU Clinical Trial Regulation.
- No-deal would also jeopardise the UK’s close research links with the EU. This would do significant damage to organisations including the Crick (see Annex 1 for case studies on how Brexit will impact the Crick’s workforce). 40% of the Crick’s scientists and 55% of our postdocs are EU nationals. In 2018, the Crick secured €12 million (£10.6m) from ERC grants. Almost a quarter of the Crick’s group leaders have an ERC grant or a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellow in their lab. Several of our group leaders provide advice, guidance and expertise to the EU as members of its panels or advisory committees.
- Close links with the EU also enable the UK to be an integral part of one of the three international science powerhouses – Europe, the USA and China – and through that to work more effectively with the rest of the world.
Science after Brexit
- For British science to hold onto its world-leading position after Brexit, scientists must be able to move easily across Europe, participate fully in EU Framework Programmes and work seamlessly with partners across the channel. EU membership delivers this effectively, but if the UK leaves the EU, it urgently needs a deal to provide certainty in these areas.
- While the Crick is still attracting world-class talent in spite of Brexit, we are beginning to see European scientists planning to return to their home countries after they finish their PhDs or postdocs. 78% of the Crick’s EU scientists say that they are less likely to stay in the UK after Brexit, and a third of our UK scientists say that they are more likely to move elsewhere. However, whatever the outcome of Brexit, the Crick will remain open and welcoming to scientists and students from around the world.
Annex 1: The impact of Brexit on the Crick’s workforce
Deborah Caswell, UK/US postdoc
Dr Deborah Caswell works in one of the UK’s leading cancer labs, led by Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician. She’s investigating whether exercise can fight cancer and developing new immunotherapy treatments for lung cancer, work funded by an EU grant. She is a dual UK/US citizen who came to the Crick after completing her PhD at Stanford.
“I love Britain and I came here planning to build a life and career,” says Debbie. “I had been excited at the prospect of applying for a position at one of the UK’s many brilliant universities such as Cambridge or UCL once my postdoc at the Crick ends. But if there is a hard Brexit, I will be looking for my next position in continental Europe or the US.”
Debbie also wrote a piece for the Financial Times on Brexit, published in October 2018.
Caetano Reis e Sousa, EU group leader
Portuguese scientist Caetano Reis e Sousa leads a lab looking at how the immune system works, to develop better vaccines and cancer therapies. He is a distinguished scientist who won the prestigious Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2017. He was awarded a €2.5m ERC Advanced Grant in 2010 and another in 2018, and has hosted over 8 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellows in his lab who have brought in an additional €1.5m of EU funds for research.
“Brexit is a constant source of worry for me, both for my family and for my lab,” says Caetano.
“I am concerned that our ability to attract the most talented scientists could be damaged by proposed immigration restrictions, and the atmosphere created by Brexit also makes me wonder whether this is the country to continue to bring up my children. I am also concerned that I may lose access to EU funding after Brexit, despite the government’s guarantee that any lost funding will be compensated. I am not confident that any replacement funding would realistically arrive in a reasonable timeframe.”
Jasmin Zohren, EU postdoc
Jasmin Zohren is working to understand our DNA, looking at how its organisation differs between species and between males and females. She is currently comparing opossum DNA with human and mouse DNA to see which features are conserved, to better understand how and why they evolved.
Jasmin is a German-born scientist who has worked across Europe on a range of projects spanning cancer, plant science and sex chromosome evolution.
She was offered her current position on the day of the Brexit referendum and spent a long time deciding whether or not to stay in the UK, but her long-term plans have changed. She came to the UK with the aim of settling down and building a life here, but since Brexit she now plans to return to Germany once she finishes her work at the Crick.