The Francis Crick Institute, the UK’s biggest biomedical research lab, has warned that a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit could cripple UK science, as a survey of over 1,000 staff reveals that 97% of scientists believe a hard Brexit would be bad for UK science (76% very negative, 21% negative).
As the results are released, 29 Nobel Prize winning scientists from across Europe have written to UK Prime Minister Theresa May and EU President Jean-Claude Juncker urging the ‘closest possible cooperation between the UK and the EU’ after Brexit to preserve vital scientific research. The signatories include Crick Director Paul Nurse and the letter is led by Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society.
Concerns about Brexit are very high at the Crick, with only 10% of scientists feeling confident in the future of UK science. Only 4% think that the government is committed to getting a good deal for science while only 3% think the scientific community is being listened to.
Paul Nurse says: “This survey reveals the depth of feeling amongst scientists that a hard Brexit will seriously damage UK research, and that the government is not paying enough attention to science in the Brexit negotiations. Science and research matter for the UK’s economic growth, for the nation’s health and quality of life, and for the environment. The overwhelming negativity of scientists towards a hard Brexit should be a wake-up call to the country and the government. A hard Brexit could cripple UK science and the government needs to sit up and listen. We need a deal that replaces the science funding lost because of Brexit, that preserves freedom of movement for talented scientists, and that makes them feel welcome in this country.”
The £650m Crick Institute represents significant government investment in UK science, and is the largest biomedical research facility under one roof in Europe. One of the Crick’s key aims is to act as a beacon for the best scientific talent from the UK and the rest of the world. It attracts leading scientists to the UK with the objective that many of them will eventually take their skills to other British institutions.
However, the survey suggests that because of Brexit, many Crick scientists are now significantly less likely to remain in the UK when they look for their next role. Half of the Crick’s scientists are less likely to stay in the UK when they leave the institute (25% much less likely, 26% less likely), and only 7% are confident that the UK will continue to attract top scientific talent.
“A hard Brexit raises the concern that there could be a significant loss of scientists from the UK, particularly the young scientific talent upon which the country’s future will depend,” says Paul Nurse. “This will greatly diminish our ability to make scientific discoveries that will help our country prosper, and that means we will all suffer.”
Views of our scientists
Karine Rizzoti is a stem cell expert investigating stem cells in the pituitary gland and how they could be used to treat pituitary hormone deficits, such as growth hormone deficiency in children. She is working with expert collaborators across Europe but is concerned that Brexit could damage these collaborations and slow down the progress of the research.
“The referendum result felt like a real slap in the face,” says Karine, who was born in France. “I have been living and working for two decades and I never thought I’d have to apply for citizenship. But to secure my future, and assert my right to stay and vote here, I became a British citizen. I’ve had to fill lengthy applications, learn about British history, culture and institutions and spend more than a thousand pounds to achieve it. I haven’t ordered my British passport yet as, after all the time and money, I thought I may as well wait for the blue one and be one of the first to get it!”
Caetano Reis e Sousa
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 last year won the prestigious 2017 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine and was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant worth €2.5m.
“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.”
Dr Deborah Caswell works 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.”
Survey sample size
Survey sample size
- Crick staff respondents: 1061
- Crick scientist respondents: 801
- Percentage of scientists from the EU: 42.7%
- Percentage of scientists from the UK: 44.4%
- Percentage of scientists from the rest of the world: 12.9%