It’s Not My Brexit Either

I am trying to decide whether to remove the Twitter ‘Scientists for the EU’ twibbon from my profile. I still am a scientist and I’m still pro EU, but there’s no longer quite the same message to be conveyed. Fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry has written eloquently how January 31st was not about his Brexit, so I won’t repeat his arguments, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I do, however, have to decide about this twibbon (inertia, as well as sentiment, probably means it will stay a while).

On the other hand, I have made a decision about what to do about my Bollocks to Brexit badge, purchased on the first of the two massive London demonstrations I went on. Whether they want it or not, I’m going to add it to my ‘papers’. That means the College Archives can file it in due course for any researchers to happen upon it if they are wanting to study what life was like for a female scientist in the years around the turn of the 21st century. (I do find it pretty improbable that my patchy archives would be of interest, but that’s beside the point.) I did decide, on January 31st, not actually to wear mourning black, appropriate though it would have been on other fronts when I addressed a student group in another Cambridge college about violence and harassment against women.

However, we are where we are, and my job must surely be to make the best of what currently feels like a very bad lot. As head of a Cambridge college which employs many EU nationals and welcomes many EU students, I must be sure we help and support the former, if and when they want to apply for settled status, and reassure the latter as required. I must make sure that racism – or any other kind of -ism – does not raise its ugly head within our walls just because we are now outside the EU and someone might want to see some people as ‘other’ and therefore fair game for insults and worse. I hope no one in the College thinks like this, but vigilance will be needed.

As a scientist I need to focus on anything I could do to do to ensure that UK science is not set massively back by our departure. The news on Tier 1 visas is welcome, but slightly cosmetic; that is not where the biggest problems for UK science lies. We need to worry, not just about ‘exceptional talent’, but all those who contribute to what has been (and I hope will continue to be) a world-leading community: the postdocs and technicians in particular, who haven’t (yet) reached the heady heights of ‘exceptional talent’ but who are nevertheless essential to the more senior folk who will get fast-tracked into the country. We know these key but more junior people are not likely to be particularly well paid, so any salary thresholds introduced into visas at other levels will need to be carefully watched. Our whole enterprise may founder if we lose too many of these vital and smart individuals.

I have frequently written about my admiration for the ERC (e.g. here), having watched it at close quarters as a former Scientific Council member, and this is another area which is likely to be hugely important for the scientific community (and here I mean not just scientists in the standard, narrow English meaning of the word, but the much broader sense to include social scientists and researchers in the humanities too). Can we associate with the new HorizonEurope programme or can we not?

It’s such a fundamental question to which, of course, as yet there is no glimmer of an answer. And even if an Association Agreement is fixed within the next 11 months – an extremely tall order; it took Switzerland about two years to be readmitted into the EU fold after their own referendum on Croatian workers excluded them – what will it mean? The UK has been extraordinarily successful, winning more from the ERC than its contribution amounts to and usually winning more grants than any other country. Continuing to take out more than it puts in seems almost inevitably to be an unacceptable outcome for the EU to grant.

We should recognize that investment in science potentially benefits everyone – through reinvigorating the economy, through solving our major societal challenges and through enabling better decision-making by our policy-makers. We must not allow anyone to think scientists wishing to see protection of funding are merely self-interested. Too often I fear the scientific community comes across this way.

The ERC’s focus on excellence as the sole criterion when judging proposals has made it stand out, but it does not mean that the work funded does not have major impact and societal benefits. The 11 years of the ERC have been extraordinarily successful. A review of the research it has funded demonstrated just how much the work has been seminal and innovative in ideas and impact. If formal association cannot be achieved, how can we replicate its strengths within our domestic sphere? The Smith and Reid Review provides a set of plausible alternatives to consider, but the devil will be the detail of any new funding as much as in the money. With the government’s pledge of a significant uplift in funding for science, the money may even (for once) not be the primary challenge. On the other hand it could turn out that the ARPA-like entity now so much in the news (see the recent collection of essays published by Policy Exchange) swallows up much of the public money uplift for its own more targetted purposes.

But, money aside, there are other problems that the UK will face without access to HorizonEurope and specifically the ERC. According to the Royal Society’s 2018 factsheet, around 17% of researchers in the UK came from the EU, compared with 12% from the entire rest of the world. In Cambridge, about 15% of the academic staff are EU nationals. If visas for visiting researchers are forthcoming without months of waiting or high cost (and not, as I said before, just for the most senior), maybe these people will still want to come. But the costs for healthcare, for dependents and so on may make us pretty unattractive as a destination by comparison with simply moving within the EU. My main concern in the absence of an Association Agreement, however, is that the ‘brightest and best’ the Government is prone to refer to will wish to remain in a country where they can still access HorizonEurope funding. The ERC’s prestige and success mean that to opt to remain in – let alone relocate to – a country from which applications cannot be made, when as an EU national living within mainland Europe the option will stay on the table, may seem a quixotic choice.

I know anecdotally how much these concerns have been and are being expressed by EU academics already well-established here. Some of them have already left; many more are sitting tight waiting to see what happens. Well, we’ll all know soon what the answer is. I fear that the EU brain drain will rapidly increase from a steady flow to a flood if we are excluded from Horizon2020. Putting more money into the system by whatever mechanism is unlikely to stem that flood, however welcome many of us will find it. Our research and our communities will be the poorer for not being part of the wider scientific endeavour. Our children and our grandchildren will look back in astonishment.

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8 Responses to It’s Not My Brexit Either

  1. Martin Smith says:

    Thanks Athene. There’s more good news in the Tier 1 visa reforms than the media coverage suggests though – a big expansion in terms of eligibility for this route, not just a cosmetic change or uncapping of an underused scheme.

    Most importantly, it means that technicians and post-docs can be eligible if they (or their role) are named on a peer-reviewed grant from an ‘Endorsed Funder’. The list of Endorsed Funders includes research councils, Wellcome, CRUK, H2020, and many others.

    Various other conditions but it’s a big change.

    Details on the UKRI website:

    I’ll blog with some more details early next week and post a link here.

    Sadly the good things weren’t made clear in the press release and the coverage assumed it was very narrow.

    You’re right though that if we’re not eligible for ERC grants in the future then the UK will be much less attractive to some even with this route. Getting a deal for science that includes association to Horizon Europe is crucial.

    Some musings on the latter point here, based on a Wellcome report published a few days ago:

    • Martin, thanks. That’s really helpful and some key points about technicians and postdocs had passed me by, as I’m sure many others. It doesn’t, I think, address my point about dependents’ and health care costs, but makes the Tier 1 scheme more helpful than’ I’d appreciated. However, the fact remains that the UK will be much less attractive as a place to come and work. I know of EU citizens, here as postdocs for instance, who have said they used to think they saw the UK as a place to build a career but after the referendum (let alone now) they saw no future here and were returning to mainland Europe.

      • Martin Smith says:

        Yes indeed – a long way to go, and visa costs is a big issue. The Immigration Health Surcharge will go up from £400 to £625 per year, which is a huge amount to pay when it’s multiplied by the length of your visa, then by the number of dependents, and all paid up front. It’s extremely expensive compared to other countries.

        More broadly, people will weigh up a wide range of factors when deciding whether to move their lives to another country, and T1 reforms won’t deal with all of them, as you say. There’s certainly damage to be undone. But it’s a start, at least, and an optimist would say a statement of intent. The press release does refer to this being the first phase of reforms, so hopefully there’s more good things to come.

        Full association to Horizon Europe needs to be next on the list, along with work on visa costs.

        Meanwhile, on the Horizon Europe issue, Wellcome is encouraging signatures for this #dealforscience petition:

  2. Huw Sayer says:

    “Our research and our communities will be the poorer for not being part of the wider scientific endeavour. Our children and our grandchildren will look back in astonishment.”

    That is the saddest part of this whole sorry mess. The same is true for business and the arts. Barriers (whether financial, regulatory or social) hinder knowledge sharing and human development.


  3. Dan says:

    “The ERC’s focus on excellence as the sole criterion when judging proposals has made it stand out”
    This isn’t actually true and I wish people would stop spreading the ERC’s own falsehoods. Every grant the ERC also has strict criteria for career stage, i.e. “years post PhD”. If you miss those cut offs it doesn’t matter if you now have the best h-index, funding record and project proposal on earth, you still can’t apply.

    • Anyone at any career stage can apply for an Advanced Grant, so that criticism does not apply.

      • Dan says:

        But that is only one of their grants. It is therefore still incorrect to claim their sole criteria is excellence; clearly many other criteria apply to the vast majority of their awards.
        “The ERC has precisely one award where excellence is the sole criteria” isn’t that amazing of a claim though is it?

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