I have recorded an interview for a Podcast produced by NatScience, a science communication agency based in Sweden. The topic is the hottest in the Europe scientific community these days: Brexit.
What was your reaction to the result of the referendum?
My reaction was similar to the one of other thousands British researchers: absolute dismay, confusion and anger. Democracy is done when debates are articulated, based on facts and plural. None of these applied to the referendum contest, that was dominated by fake numbers and fears. This type of policy doesn’t contribute to anyone’s good, and the damaging effect of an emotional vote will remain for years.
What are your biggest concerns for science in and with the UK?
I have reasons to think that science in the UK will be different. Brexit caused uncertainty over EU funds, which helps the best universities to stay on top of the race. This void will have to be picked up by national organisations like the Medical Research Council, which is already underfunded. Yet, with the shrinking economy ahead of a Leaving vote, footing the research bill will be the last concern of the government.
If UK stays outside the Framework Program Horizon2020, collaboration will be affected. EU science programs are not just designed to distribute money: they give member states ready access to a huge pool of diverse scientific expertise and facilities. Outside HORIZON, UK labs will turn to national grants, which impose limits on international spending and external collaborations.
What will be the consequences, in the long and short term?
Long-term consequence are hard to predicts, though top researchers in the country thinks when it comes to science and science-based regulation, the EU is much better than the sum of its countries.
In the short-term, Brexit has already left a mark. Two positions at The Francis Crick Institute in London, where I work, went vacant after a 5 months recruitment process, because the candidates, both from EU countries, refused to move in the wake of Brexit. This is hugely damaging: Group Leaders invest substantial energy to recruit the best candidates, and a last minute refusal may cause the whole process to start over.
Leaving campaigners may say these events as overreaction, advocating that skill workers will always be welcome in the country. But for a young, international scientist like myself, I see why my peers decided this way: EU is the starting point of everything we’ve ever become: the free travel, the health insurance, the right to work where we like, the opportunity to compete for first class research funds. This is all at stake.
Which possible solutions are there for science and the scientific community?
I sincerely hope the future UK Government will succeed in negotiating a good deal with the remaining, upset EU partners. The divorce will be complex, long and painful. In respect to science, I hope UK will continue its long collaboration with the EU, first of all by maintaining the membership to Horizon2020. This will limit the damage of Brexit, and help the UK to stay in the conversation with the rest of the continent.
You are from Italy, have done your PhD in Sweden, postdoc in UK and are about to leave for California. Which factors do you think are important for carrying out good science?
I feel I am the successful product of this European Union, however imperfect this organisation is. My PostDoc is funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship. My first visit to Stockholm was the result of an EU-based agreement between Bologna University and Karolinska Institute. My relocation to California is somehow the results of belonging to a leading European laboratory, not just a UK laboratory.
Good science needs globalisation and opportunities to create interdisciplinary research. It’s already hard for scientists to do so, because agencies are narrow minded and don’t like risk. Brexit will just make this problem even harder to solve.
In science – and more in general in economy and policy – any attempt to foster nationalism and isolationism is anachronistic, and it is like swimming against the flow.