Moving beyond #Brexit — Perspectives from an Early Career Researcher

The last few weeks have been a rather busy period of time in the UK, with the EU referendum and its consequences playing out. There has been significant analysis, discussion and speculation across social media and the news with a wide variety of lenses. Here I’ve scribbled down a few thoughts from my view as an Early Career Scientist/Engineer who’s trying desperately to set up shop in the Department of Materials at Imperial College in London.

In the last couple of days, we now have a new Cabinet in place under our new Prime Minister Theresa May. This has a few familiar faces in a few eye raising ministerial places. Lots of these were expected, others perhaps could be viewed as a more ironic flourish. Their individual impact, power and longevity have yet to be seen.

In this fast moving world of UK politics, it is often easy to forget that the fate of UK science and engineering is a far longer game which can easily be unbalanced and damaged with a single poor choice (just look at Australia). Moving forward I’ve been considering some of the risks, benefits and opportunities afforded in this tumultuous climate. Briefly, I’m going to outline my views on the status quo, potential thorny issues that will need to be resolved, and what we can do as members of the scientific and engineering community to steer us forward.

Much of this thinking has been spurred through my involvement in a joint submission by a bunch of Early Career Researchers to the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology (view our letter here, sign it here or submit an individual contribution here).

The game at hand

Our current situation was spurred into place when the Electorate were asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”. The leave camp won: 52% (Leave) vs 48% (Remain). There was a high turn-out, with 71.8% of the electorate voting (the highest since the 1992 General Election).

Analysis of the votes indicates that voting was geographically and age biased. In very broad brush strokes, the young and metropolitan/University town regions wanted to remain. However, there were significant fractions of people in these demographics who voted to leave (i.e. not all young people wanted to stay). The run up to the vote was messy, often racially charged and certainly divisive in nature. It will take us a while to heal.

EU Voting by age group (from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32810887)

This referendum likely distilled many issues into one very simple question with a less than simple answer. Some of these issues involved — a feeling of empowerment; concerns about immigration; a lack of a sense of UK self; and fundamental disenfranchisement with the status quo. These issues are complicated further as our relationship with Europe is not that easy unpick. For instance, there are several ‘forms’ of Europe with which people interact. The referendum considered the EU, which is principally a political union amongst member states. There are other unions include the Eurozone (a monetary union) and the Council of Europe (which the European Court of Human Rights stems from). Central tenets of the EU which affect science are matters of direct research funding, joint participation in major EU projects and issues regarding freedom of movement (the right to work in the UK and also for UK researchers to gain experience working in the EU). Trade is also important, as this will affect how attractive the UK is for global investment (this is especially important for UK manufacturing, such as aerospace).

The UK lacks a constitution and therefore the referendum is ‘advisory’. As such, the result has triggered a period of significant instability (and lots of hypothetical scenarios). This will only be resolved when strong leadership reappears and a clear path is mapped out. One path, that of actually leaving the EU through triggering of Article 50, will require a vote by MPs in Parliament. This will be likely be the principal agenda of the new Brexit minister David Davis. In the lead up to the potential triggering of Article 50, there are numerous political, societal and legal roadblocks that will need be navigated by Davis and his team. Even if/when Article 50 is triggered, leaving the EU will take two years and consequences to UK R&D are not within a well mapped path.

While Davis suggests resolution by the end of the year (at least for Article 50), the future is far from certain, as the strength of the new government has not been established and the opposition lacks any coherent direction. The only upside to this instability is that it offers us an opportunity to try to lobby MPs and other influential colleagues to plot a course which grows our future and encourages continued (or growth in) support for UK science and engineering.

Risks to UK science and engineering

My livelihood and long term prospects are directly entwined with how the UK moves through this tricky period. We can break the problems at hand into two camps — those which are direct and indirect. The direct consequences of the EU referendum and Brexit consist of substantive and measurable issues, such as currency fluctuations which affect the value of existing contracts or purchases, visa issues of EU nationals within the UK and UK nationals in the EU (for current staff and as well future movements), and cancellation of existing/future contracts. The indirect consequences of the EU referendum are based on less substantive (yet still very important) thoughts, feelings and desires, including: general feelings within the UK about its value of our global partners; the UK as a home to nurture and grow talented individuals with their families; the feelings and opinions of colleagues in Europe with respect to funding proposals and research collaborations. The impact of these feelings will be felt over a prolonged period, as people consider UK as a destination and partner of choice for future directions (such as Horizon 2020 proposals), investment in large multi-nation capital projects, and where to send their family for higher education.

Many of the direct issues will be resolved outside of my sphere of influence or immediate work. Therefore, I focus on those areas which have direct impact and which we would hope to affect, such as firm promises for support for EU schemes and facilities, regardless of our current EU status, or the establishment of equivalent / better schemes within the UK R&D ecosystem. The second opportunity is especially interesting given the ~positive funding settlement of UK research council funding and the restructuring of RCUK/RUK. Perhaps our strongest voice here is with the UK Science and Technology Select Committee through written evidence in their open consultation (closes 22nd August), supporting our ECR letter and also lobbying our MPs directly to keep Science and Engineering towards the top of their agenda (it creates jobs, adds value and supports growth in the UK).

Many EU schemes are front and centre of this agenda, such as the Horizon 2020 calls and the numerous fellowships on offer. However, I work on nuclear power and with materials, so I am also nervously watching for developments that span from the use of major facilities such as CERN, the ESRF (the European synchrotron), agreements based around EURATOM; as well as the future of the EU fusion projects (the UKAEA/Culham efforts with JET and MAST employing many talented scientists and engineers, which is still awaiting appointment of a new CEO, as well as cooperation within ITER and future bids for DEMO), and also joint collaboration in the Jules Horowitz Reactor (apparently switched on and due to be critical in 2021). There are also UK energy sector and policy concerns, including the future of Hinkley C (whose future remains bright) and wider fall-out from rumoured merger of DECC and BIS into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (which could be viewed positively — business and energy together in one house, or negatively — climate change is off the direct agenda).

While many of the direct issues have tangible solutions where decisions can be made, it is the indirect concerns that reflect concerns about a longer term view. As a result of the EU Referendum process and its outcome, many of my European colleagues (or their European families) feel less at home in Britain. This is concerning on a personal level, but also as there is likely to be a brain drain of the talented and able. As the nature of our work is collaborative, this feeling may percolate throughout the scientific community risking our objective as a ‘destination of choice’. This is a shame, as the Brexit vote was achieved despite the strong support for the EU amongst the young and metropolitan. As the immediate shock has worn down, many of these feelings are less apparent, but I remain aware some are actively seeking posts abroad and a brain drain is a very real threat.

In London and at Imperial I am relatively insulated from immediate shocks, we will probably ride the storm more comfortably than most as we have long been internationally attractive and we have a relatively balanced income portfolio. Fundamentally, our global standing keeps us competitive and attractive for students and colleagues alike. However, our global position is far from certain, as longer term we need: a flux of talented researchers at all levels; healthy and competitive UK higher education system; and positive support on the international stage.

Final thoughts

Science and engineering often live in a bubble, where despite our long lasting impact on wider society, our day-to-day existence rarely extends beyond an immediate and cosmopolitan social circle. This is perhaps framed well by my own experiences.

On the night of the EU referendum, I was enjoying an evening of fun and relaxation courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering. We were celebrating the 2016 annual awards. My fellow engineers were being deservedly lauded for their achievements, and in particular their efforts in bringing about real change though creative and innovative solutions, such as with the immensely talented and hardworking winners of the McRobert prize for amazing articulated prosthetics. The next day, I woke up to Brexit and an uncertain future.

I feel that working out how we sail our fair island towards brighter and more inclusive pastures will require hard work, determination and reaching out beyond our bubble to try to turn uncertainty towards our advantage and secure a brighter future for everyone.


I can be reached on twitter as @BMatB