Brexit: a personal view of a European scientist in the UK

Cesare Terracciano
Professor of Cardiac Electrophysiology, Imperial College London

Professor Terracciano in the optical mapping lab with three PhD students. The group studies the possible application of human cardiac muscle cells derived from stem cells to treat patients with heart failure and help in the development of new drugs.

Like many other scientists, I am in the UK because of the European Union. In 1991, a young Italian cardiologist from the University of Rome, I was awarded a fellowship by the European Society of Cardiology to study heart disease in the UK. And there I was, on a flight to London, with all the excitement and anticipation for a new adventure. Because of the EU, crossing the national border was only a formality, and I did not feel any different than going, for the first time, to Milan or Palermo, or to Paris or Madrid. In London, from the very first moment, I felt at home and my EU passport made me practically no different from any other citizen. Making London my permanent home and developing a career in science were only steps of a natural progression dictated by personal circumstances. Like me, a massive number of Europeans have found the fertile and challenging UK science environment an ideal place to develop their ideas whilst contributing to the high quality of research and teaching in UK universities.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, I am now an established academic, I am Professor of Cardiac Electrophysiology and I lead the BSc Course in Cardiovascular Sciences at Imperial College. Before the EU referendum, I had been following the events mostly for the media interest it was generating. From the perspective of both an academic and a Londoner, I was certain that most UK citizens would vote Remain, putting an end to a toxic xenophobic streak that fortunately was not involving my world. Like the majority of European citizens living in the UK, I could have applied for a British passport but I never felt I needed to. Strangely, much of this referendum was about me and people like me, but I could not vote!

Two months after the EU referendum, after weeks of debates, political crises and predictions, I am very concerned about Brexit and its impact on UK universities. The EU is fundamental for UK research and teaching and Brexit affects me as both a UK academic and European citizen. Firstly, UK academics receive very substantial funding and training opportunities from the EU. EU funding is more protected than if it was managed by individual countries, as local economies may dictate cuts to education and research budgets, often incorrectly perceived as less important and less politically rewarding. Another crucial aspect is that EU-funded collaborations have a massive importance in terms of impact, sharing of technology, volume and quality of research and the ability to compete against technology superpowers (such as the US, China etc.). Will our UK groups be excluded now? It is already clear, only a few weeks after the referendum, that dialogue with our European collaborators has become strangely uncomfortable.

Finally, a point that I feel has not been stressed enough is that currently our laboratories and lecture theatres are full of European students and staff. This is one of the important factors leading to the worldwide success of UK universities. We are offered a tremendous choice of exceptional students and researchers from a large, diverse pool and, by selecting the best people, we guarantee the success of our academic work and the perpetuation of the high standards we pride ourselves in upholding. Unfortunately, the message of the referendum result to the Europeans living in the UK planning to work and study here is clear: you may be allowed in, but you need to have a strong case, and we don’t want you to feel at home! Will all the EU students and staff stay in the UK or continue to come? Would the UK still be attractive for developing their careers if it was not part of the EU?

The Cell Electrophysiology group at Imperial College London. With the 7 British members there are 3 Italians, 2 French, 2 Spanish, 1 Portuguese, 1 German, 1 Latvian and 1 Thai. 1 Hungarian, 1 Greek and 1 Irish students will be joining in October 2016. The diverse, multicultural aspect is extremely common in UK laboratories and is one of their biggest strengths. This is greatly encouraged by the current free movement of people among the EU countries.

One strong feature in the EU debate has been the lack of precise plans for a post-Brexit Britain and the future of UK universities remains unclear. In my view, the best possible outcome is that our privileged relationship with the EU not only survives but becomes stronger. Free movement of people and sharing of funding must be encouraged if the UK wants to remain a leader in science. EU academic staff and students should be specifically encouraged to cross the Channel by financial incentives and high quality job offers. Unfortunately, even the most optimistic among us cannot understand how this can be achieved without contradicting the results of the referendum. We were promised by the Leave campaign that this is possible after Brexit and I am waiting to see how it will be obtained. If this is the case, I and many other European colleagues will still be publishing our research under the affiliation of UK universities and the best student of our BSc course in Cardiovascular Sciences, like in 2016, may be French.

Read more in our blog about Brexit from the BHF’s policy team.