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Brexit wrecks it for science

We are all reeling from the vote for Brexit. No one in my scientific circle was for exit. Now all are heavily lamenting it. Even cursing it on Facebook. Scientists voted to stay. Seems the entire science sector was pro-Europe and for many good reasons. Many of the best UK science labs are filled with brilliant researchers from across the EU.

The best science is done when there are no barriers to free thought, open working or collaboration. The closing of borders lessens the potential movement of scientists to the best places for them to work.

In a letter to The Times, Stephen Hawking. three Nobel laureates, the Astronomer Royal and 150 of their colleagues from the Royal Society cursed Brexit as a “disaster for UK science”. Again, recruitment of talent was cited as a major loss. The LA Times weighed in with an article entitled “British Scientists are Freaking Out about Brexit too.”

It is clear on all fronts these are dark days for science.

EU funding encouraged collaboration of scientists across Europe and it is hard to imagine the United Kingdom now being cut out of this collaborative circle and the ability to exchange ideas with long-standing European colleagues.

How many UK researchers, especially those at the start of their careers, are now stranded with soon to be illegal alien status in European countries? Just as exchange was beginning to ramp up between countries, it is cut without further notice. What about those who will soon have to leave the United Kingdom without the legal right to stay?

The funding chasm that will open in the wake of Brexit is one that has long existed when it comes to collaborating with colleagues in the USA or farther afield. Yes, there are small pots of money that allow the exchange of personnel, short visits, or bespoke projects on specific topics to specific countries (Brazil, India and China are top of the lists), but in general it is very different to get funding to work together across the pond or beyond. Now the gulf has widened.

Nigel Farage, by Dweller. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Nigel Farage, by Dweller. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My life was transformed by EU funding.

One of so many grants given to bring together researchers across Europe into large collaborative undertakings, we had funding to research marine microbes. As part of this project we launched Ocean Sampling Day (OSD). No one country could have undertaken this project – it required as many researchers as possible to take ocean samples on the same day at the same time around the world. The consortium was global. We wanted to look at global distributions of microbes and understand what drives their distributions and diversity. The great day of sampling occurred on the solstice and would have been the sole topic of this article had Brexit not occurred. As such, it is now a lament of things lost. (A huge congratulations to all who took part in OSD 2016!)

Luckily, OSD is largely crowd-funded by the scientific community. Researchers as far away as Tahiti have all come together to contribute expertise, time, money and scientific infrastructure to take part. As a result, among other findings, more than three million genes new to science have been found.

This year Chris Mason’s group, who famously sampled the microbes of the New York Subway, joined to add an urban ‘swabathon’ to the solstice festivities.

OSD shows us what could happen if we had science-without-borders. And how science goes forward only with suitable funding. With dedicated funding the German sampling activity exploded in 2016 as can be seen on this map as sampling work headed to inland freshwater sites.

The breakdown of UK scientific links to the continent through Brexit reminds us that we should be thinking about how to encourage global funding of science. We have one Earth and many topics would benefit from global funding. Some advances are being made. Some philanthropic foundations fund without borders, but primarily focus on a specific country still, namely their home country. Some scientific initiatives like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) work globally to catalogue distributions of species through a collaboration of governments. Collaborative funding like the Belmont Forum works at the international level to tackle climate change and sustainable development.

Still, we ideally need a lot more international and cross-borders funding.

With more and more billionaires funding research would it be too outlandish to see a group come together to truly change science? To go where governmental funding bodies can’t go? To do what is best for humankind? To have a vision of the future? Perhaps this is just crazy talk brought on by the anguish of Brexit, but perhaps it is exactly such tragedies that help bring out transformative actions.

One can only hope. From all the worst disasters, all one can do is try to forge silver linings through imagination and change.

Projects like Ocean Sampling Day should ideally have recourse to funding that could be spread to all participating countries. It could be used to fund boat time, participation in meetings, extra analysis and the development of novel approaches where speciality expertise resides at different, geographically dispersed laboratories. This is a future model of science that is most cost effective, productive, and useful to humanity.

Establishing global science funding infrastructure is far above the issue of Brexit, but Brexit highlights it yet again.

Featured image credit: Brexit in flags, by VectorOpenStock. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via VectorOpenStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Justin Petrone

    Hello Dawn,

    My name is Justin Petrone and I am a journalist. My contacts at
    GenomeWeb (www.genomeweb.com), a widely read, New York-based online
    news resource focused on genomics, have entrusted me with writing
    something on how the Brexit might affect genomics researchers,
    institutions, and cooperation in the UK. I just saw your recent column
    and thought I must contact you for either comment or referrals to
    other sources. I know it’s July, but do you have time this week to
    chat? I am also based in Europe, though I am American, and can talk
    whenever is convenient to you. We can also exchange mails if that is
    more convenient. We want to know what scientists in the UK think about
    what is going on and how it might impact them.

    Look forward to speaking with you,

    [email protected]

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