Hard Brexit could cripple UK science, warn Nobel Prize winners

Scientists fear the impact of a hard Brexit (Picture: PA)
Scientists fear the impact of a hard Brexit (Picture: PA)

World-leading scientists have warned Theresa May not to allow Brexit to create new barriers to collaboration across Europe.

Dozens of winners of the Nobel Prize have written to the prime minister and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker setting out their concerns.

Their message was echoed by the London-based Francis Crick Institute, which warned that a hard Brexit could cripple science across the continent.

Nobel winner and Crick director Sir Paul Nurse, one of the signatories to the letter, said scientists feared a hard Brexit would “seriously damage research”.

The letter to the prime minister, signed by 29 Nobel winners and six recipients of the Fields Medal awarded to outstanding mathematicians, said “creating new barriers” to collaboration across the EU would “inhibit progress, to the detriment of us all”.

“Many of us in the science community therefore regret the UK’s decision to leave the European Union because it risks such barriers,” the group said.

They urged both sides in the Brexit negotiations to ensure “as little harm as possible is done to research”.

The letter’s signatories include biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.


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Meanwhile, a survey of more than 1,000 staff at the Crick found 97% of them believed a hard Brexit would be bad for UK science and 82% thought it would have a detrimental effect on European science.

The Crick is the biggest biomedical research lab under one roof in Europe and has been publicly praised by the Prime Minister, who toured the facility with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in April.

Sir Paul said: “This survey reveals the depth of feeling amongst scientists that a hard Brexit will seriously damage research, and that the UK Government is not paying enough attention to science in the Brexit negotiations.

A hard Brexit could jeopardise collaboration between scientists across the world, it has been warned (Picture: PA)
A hard Brexit could jeopardise collaboration between scientists across the world, it has been warned (Picture: PA)

“Science and research matter for economic growth, health and quality of life, and the environment.

“The overwhelming negativity of scientists towards a hard Brexit should be a wake-up call.

“A hard Brexit could cripple science and the UK Government needs to sit up and listen.

“We need a deal that replaces the science funding lost because of Brexit, that preserves freedom of movement for talented scientists, and that makes them feel welcome in this country.”

Science Minister Sam Gyimah told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We all recognise that a chaotic Brexit would be a significant setback for science. That is why we have got a plan to ensure that, deal or no deal, there will be no cliff-edge for UK science.

“Unprecedented amounts of investment are going into UK science – another £7 billion in the next five years, that is more than we have ever invested in research and development in this country.

“We are rolling out big research programmes, a £1 billion research programme open to scientists from around the world. And we are also mindful of the issue of mobility and keeping people here.

“We are grateful to all those scientists from around the world who have chosen to pursue their careers here and we want them to stay.”

Nobel Prize winners have written to the prime minister expressing their fears (Picture: PA)
Nobel Prize winners have written to the prime minister expressing their fears (Picture: PA)

Mr Gyimah added: “There isn’t absolute certainty now, which I would love to be able to give. But what I can say is we are aware that, if we want to be the go-to place for science – which is our ambition as a nation – then mobility and reducing friction has to be a key part of that.”

A UK Government spokesman said: “The UK plays a vital role in making Europe a pioneering base for research and values the contribution that international researchers make to the UK.

“This will not change when we leave the EU. We will seek an ambitious relationship on science and innovation with our EU partners, exploring future UK participation in mutually beneficial research programmes, and will continue to support science, research and innovation through our modern Industrial Strategy.

“We have a proud record of welcoming the world’s brightest scientists and researchers to work and study here, and after we leave the EU we will have an immigration system to support this.”