A no deal Brexit spells trouble for science

Jessie Dolliver explores the effects of Brexit on the scientific community

As we head into March, and the deadlines of Brexit votes and decisions loom, the scientific community is panicking. Fears of food shortages have caused businesses and individuals to begin hoarding resources; but they’re not the only ones. Research laboratories across the United Kingdom have been collecting supplies, especially consumables, such as cell growth media and stem cell cultures. A fall in the value of the pound drives the price up for every piece of equipment. Labs aren’t just stockpiling supplies however, they’re stockpiling people too. With March 29th currently set as the breakup date, universities and companies are rushing to install their existing and prospective international staff and students with visas before the deadline. This has proven a difficult task. The lack of clarity around employment under Brexit, coupled with rising national xenophobia, has made Britain a less attractive destination for the world’s best and brightest.

The threat of a “no-deal” Brexit seriously compounds the impending and ongoing damage to the scientific community.. In the case of no deal, research scientists based in the United Kingdom would be rendered unable to apply for funding from the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. In just the two years since Brexit has been announced, these funds have contributed €1.46 billion to British research. Existing European Union (EU) grants would also cease under a no-deal Brexit, meaning several hundreds of jobs would be at risk.

Facing this wave of uncertainty, British researchers are bracing themselves by drawing up agreements and strengthening bonds with those remaining European collaborators. In late January, Trinity College signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Birmingham, in the hopes that the Birmingham-based researchers can access EU funding through our collaboration.

The negative effects of the United Kingdom leaving the EU are a surprise to few in the scientific community, After all, science is an endeavor in seeking universal truths, built up incrementally by people from all over the world. As the International Science Council, one of the oldest non-governmental organizations in the world, states: “the free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists”. Many great scientists, most famously Isaac Newton, have attributed their discoveries to the work of others, having “seen further … by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. In reality, it is not only the great discoveries which must be ascribed to legacies of incredible minds. Every new discovery is utterly dependant on the mosaic of previous work which has come before it. When it comes to research, the rule of thumb is the more perspectives the better.

The instance of Brexit, and the ongoing isolation of Britain from the European research community, provokes some reevaluation of how global cooperation is valued in research. The majority of groundbreaking studies or reviews published in the most influential scientific journals involve the international collaboration of research groups. Take, for example, the current issue of the prestigious journal Science. One article on the mammalian immune system was published by 31 authors from 7 countries and 3 continents. Another, on a binary neutron star merger, was the product of collaboration between 35 researchers from 11 counties and 3 continents. Yet another, this time surrounding pantropical climate interactions, combined the efforts of 34 researchers from 10 countries and 4 continents. The list stretches on.

All throughout the history of humanity, our evolution as a species has depended on the ability to propel one another forward in civilization. Think about the shimmering glass cathedrals of Europe’s Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, heralded by historians as a sign of the continent’s emergence from the Dark Ages. These beautiful structures would never have been possible if Egyptian craftsmen had not invented the art of creating glass, or Syrian masters had not created the blow pipe, which allowed glass to develop beyond more than just jewellery. Or in a more recent example, we can look at the acid rain crisis of the 1960s, Mass soil erosion, environmental degradation, and subsequent famine caused by sulphuric acid rain in Scandinavia and Finland was only averted through the collaboration of Russian agronomists and meteorologists. This new phenomenon, triggered by combined pollutants from smokestacks in Poland, Germany, and Britain, required urgent international cooperation. Ultimately, this unity transcended the persisting Cold-War climate of political unrest.

The international aspect of the acid rain problem is becoming typical in scientific research. As both globalism and human populations grow, it would seem that many of the questions which the scientific community are facing are worldwide in nature. Air pollution, we have seen, has no respect for national borders or conflicts. This is true also for global warming, caused by greenhouse gases from industry, agriculture, and transport; these gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides. Like any gas in the atmosphere, they disperse, and we are all vulnerable to the warming which they cause. The global nature of this example itself has resulted in political conflict. It appears that the developing countries, who contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, are suffering the effects the most, with no way to constrain one country’s emissions to its geographical extent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations to monitor and plan mitigation of the damage caused by climate change. It is composed of 195 members, each representing a governmental member of the United Nations.

Committees and groups like the IPCC are normal in science. Every global problem has at least one; biodiversity loss and the current mass extinction have the Convention on Biodiversity. Global food security has the international crop research centres such as the International Rice Research Institute, and accompanying seed banks. In 2012 such a research center was forced to relocate from Aleppo to Lebanon as a result of the Syrian Revolution and war. They rebuilt their research using seeds stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, buried deep beneath the Arctic permafrost. The International Vaccine Institute in South Korea is just one example of a group concentrated on the issue of global human health. Increased international air travel and antibiotic resistance has made it easier for pandemics of contagious diseases to break out. The International Energy Research Centre is an organization which attempts to find solutions to the global energy crisis, and develops the technology required to switch to renewable energy sources.

Global crises aren’t the only things which necessitate countries working together scientifically.

Research in geology or global environmental conditions throughout deep time requires international collaboration. These questions are global in effect, and can’t be answered by any one site of study. Purely physical research is also often international, mostly due to the cost and size of physics research stations. Every science fan is familiar with the CERN institute, and their massive particle collider which smashes atoms together at incredible speeds. It could, its rumoured, create a black hole on the planet Earth. It was also where the internet was created, born out of necessity as a tool to keep up with their analytics. The CERN research station is located in Switzerland, but there is no way that any one of its 21 members states could have constructed it alone. Astrophysical research is similar in many ways. There is a good reason why we have an International Space Station instead of continuing with space races. On Earth itself, astrophysicists all descend to common observatories such as those in Hawaii. These several select sites have ideal conditions for observing, such as altitude, latitude, and humidity. In all these examples, it would seem, two heads are better than one.

Altogether, it seems obvious that when it comes to scientific research, the more the merrier. It is hard to find examples in which international collaboration has lead to slower or reduced advancement of human knowledge. The scientific community of the United Kingdom know this, and this is what scares them. Perhaps they have good reason to be concerned. The example of science and Brexit is likely not a stand-alone incident. As we see right-wing, populist politics gain traction in developed countries around the world, Brexit may become just one in a string of policy changes which fragment and damage the global research community.

If we think back to early 2017 we can find another example. Donald Trump had just been elected as the president of the United States of America (US), and had implemented an executive order or travel ban. This was commonly known as the “Muslim ban”, so-called because it banned travelers to the US from countries with majority-Muslim populations, such as Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, and Chad. Not only were visiting scholars, potential students, and collaborating researchers prohibited from moving to the US, resident scientists of the US who were abroad at the time were restricted from returning, stranded. The scientific community rallied, and a Scientific Solidarity List sprung up on Twitter for the stranded researchers. On the list, spare desk space, lab space, and library access was offered by researchers around the world, including in Trinity Professor Aoife McLysaght’s molecular evolution lab.

Many scientists who are resident in the US but are citizens of the banned countries, now cannot travel to present their findings at conferences, or meet with other research groups. They also cannot travel home to visit family, as they would be unable to return to their research in the US. An online petition against the ban has collected 31,000 signatures of U.S. faculty members, including 61 Nobel Prize winners.

What if Brexit and the Trump travel ban are not the exceptions to the rule of openness in science? What if they become the new rule? The effects of right wing populist discourse are beginning to actualize, beyond a rise in racist or xenophobic violence, economic harm, or social change. These recent political shifts will likely also damage the state of human knowledge and the progression of that knowledge through science. This damage comes at the worst possible time, as international collaboration is necessary now more than ever before in the face of humanity’s uncertain future.

Europe is currently at once both a shining example of how well international research works, and an emergent example of how distancing those of other countries and continents will work to our detriment. Care must be taken that the EU does not recreate Brexit’s pattern of damaged research communities at the international level. The EU is already popularly referred to as Fort Europe, or Fortress Europe, due to increasingly strict migration and border policies of the last decade. In this decade alone, thousands of people have died trying to reach Europe, by drowning, or freezing, or suffocating in the back of trucks. How many of these people were engineers, or doctors, or scientists? As we are often reminded, Albert Einstein was a refugee fleeing Nazi persecution, as well as forming the theory of relativity which redefined fundamental physics. In order for society to be resilient to global warming, disease pandemics, food security, and a host of other threats, the global scientific community cannot afford to be weakened by exclusion and isolation where it can be easily avoided. We do not have time for such mistakes, and unlike the British government, we will have no one to ask for a deadline extension.