I don’t normally write about politics, but last week something momentous happened in my home country that intersects with the world of science.
It has been a week since the United Kingdom voted in favor of “Brexit” – a surprise result from a national referendum. The shock waves that went through the scientific community, and the sense of loss and confusion among my scientific friends and colleagues, was huge.
While none of us know how this will turn out, those few days since that big vote have given us time to pause and reflect on the possible consequences.
As a scientist, while working for two decades in London, my work benefited immensely from the UK’s participation as a member of the European Union. Science is a global pursuit, requiring the best and brightest minds from wherever they hail. Being part of a large union with freedom of movement meant we were able to recruit easily from a large pool of people and bring diverse thinking into our projects. The scientists in my lab and in my department came from all over the EU, as well as the UK and other countries. We were able to recruit talented students and postdoctoral scientists from the EU with relative ease; some of them are still in the UK contributing directly to its economy.
Another benefit was the ability to tap into a source of research funding. We were fortunate to be participants in two large consortia funded by EU grants, which allowed us to pursue our research in TB drug discovery over many years. The stability of EU funding, in our case, for more than five years, was immensely helpful in being able to develop applied projects and bring them to fruition. Funding has become harder to get over the years, but the EU provided access for translational work not found elsewhere.
Finally, our ability to participate in a large consortium enabled us to approach difficult topics as part of a larger group, in which key skills from different disciplines could be brought together. Our ability to move around Europe freely meant that our meetings every six months were easily arranged, thought provoking, and ultimately incredibly rewarding. The ability for researchers to learn skills in other laboratories on short visits from a few weeks to a few months enabled a rapid transfer of knowledge and capabilities.
I am sure that there are many other benefits that the scientific community reaps from the EU and ones which could be lost if negotiations to leave do badly. One can only hope that the government takes some notice of the pivotal role science plays in any society and its economy and takes steps to ensure that the UK’s community can continue to be the strong player it has always been.