“As Brexit progresses, we face serious risks of doing irreparable damage to our basic science base.”

Professor Paul Newman of the University of Birmingham writes for EA:

Last week, we hosted a major international particle physics conference on campus at the University of Birmingham. More than 300 participants, representing 41 different nationalities, discussed a wide range of scientific questions connected to the CERN Large Hadron Collider at a campus which played a central role in the Nobel-Prize recognized Higgs boson discovery five years ago. Colleagues who are usually separated by geography gained insights into one another’s work and formed connections and collaborations that may someday lead to new scientific discoveries. A diverse group of influential people enjoyed the University, the city of Birmingham, and the UK in the spring sunshine, learned something about our way of life and values, and left with a deeper understanding and, I hope, an enhanced respect and fondness for our country.

Our ability to attract so many international colleagues to a meeting such as this relies on the reputation of the UK as a good scientific partner that is offering relatively straightforward access to foreign visitors, with a vibrant and internationalized scientific community that provides leadership and excellence. This perception of quality is well-placed; analysis by Thomson Reuters of average numbers of citations per research paper rank the UK first in the world in all of astronomy, particle physics, and nuclear physics over the last five years. However, if you ask a cross section of researchers about their expectations for the future, you are
likely to be met with large doses of uncertainty and trepidation. The reason is a toxic mixture of a long-term decline in UK funding for basic science and the looming threat of Brexit.

Like many other areas of academia, funding for fundamental science in the UK has been increasingly tight throughout this period of austerity. Repeated acquisition of “flat cash” has been a comparatively good result, compared with many areas of government spending. However, the lack of inflation-proofing slowly but steadily erodes this position — the UK research council’s funding of astronomy, nuclear and particle physics is forecast to fall by 35% in real terms in the decade starting in 2010. This is making it increasingly difficult to maintain UK leadership in the largest international projects, such as the LHC and the LIGO detectors where gravitational waves were recently discovered. These projects require steady, reliable funding over a long period to succeed.

It is a tenuous position, and there are at least three reasons why the consequences of Brexit could be new levels of decline.

Firstly, in setting priorities for funding in uncertain times, the instinct of government is to place increased emphasis on immediate economic impact, directly linking funding to near-term commercial potential. There has been an increase in overall support for science under the UK Government through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, designed to support collaborations between industry and the British science base. This follows the uplift in the science budget after the 2015 General Election, directed towards international development. These are laudable aims and address pressing needs of both our economy and humanity — but try tapping into these resources if your focus is fundamental scientific questions such as Higgs bosons, gravitational waves, or habitable planets orbiting stars that are
light-years away.

Secondly, in the face of the long-term, slow-but-steady decline in UK funding for basic science, successful research groups have generated an increasing fraction of their revenues from sources beyond the government in London. The outstanding opportunity has been through the Horizon 2020 EU framework for research and innovation. This offers funding schemes that encourage mobility of young researchers between European Union countries, build international training networks, and, most importantly, provide highly competitive European Research Council grants to individuals evaluated solely on the basis of “scientific excellence”.

From 2007 to 2013, more than 22% of all ERC grant awardees were working in UK institutes, almost double the total of the second most-successful country. Tapping into the increased €13 billion ERC budget for the 2014-2020 period has been just as important to UK science. Apart from compensating for the decline in British funding, the bottom-up, non-risk-averse approach has provided a desperately-needed mechanism to sustain diversity in the UK’s basic science programme. This cannot be sustained unless eligibility can be retained for ERC grants or a replacement internal UK funding mechanism makes awards on the basis of scientific excellence alone, without strings attached.

Thirdly — and this may turn out to be the most serious issue in the long-term — the expected post-Brexit restrictions of free movement of people poses enormous dangers across academia. Much of our current success has been based on being able to attract and freely recruit the best scientists from across the EU, leading to a diversity of experience and knowledge among our researchers, cross-fertilizing ideas, and tapping into extended networks of connections and collaborations.

My own group is typical. Of 32 post-doctoral personnel, 14 are of UK nationality, 14 are non-UK EU citizens, and 4 are from outside the EU. Our current EU colleagues face serious uncertainties about the future, particularly those researchers who are on the short-term contracts that are all too common in academia.

The long-term economic, as well as cultural, benefits of fundamental science are well-established and extend well beyond the invention of the World Wide Web. In these uncertain times, it is vital not to focus too strongly on immediate responses at the expense of the long-term drivers of vision and technology offered by basic science.

As Brexit progresses, we face serious risks of doing irreparable damage to our basic science base. It is ironic that our conference last week took place against the backdrop of the UK Government’s triggering of Article 50 to separate from the European Union. I sincerely hope we will remain able to organize more meetings like it in the future.