How the turmoil surrounding Brexit is already having an effect on academia in the UK.

I first started to write this post in the immediate aftermath of the UK Parliament descending into a pantomime-like farce; with fewer than 100 days ‘til the UK is destined to leave the EU, our elected representatives chose to spend their last days before the Christmas 2018 recess shouting abuse at each other. Let’s hope in the 71 days remaining before Brexit day, almost enough time for Phileas Fogg to go around the world, that UK politicians spend the time less shambolically but also that they suffer no more intimidation from mobs intent on blurring the lines between populism and extremism.

Jan 17, 2019
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However, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has led directly to four academics of my acquaintance leaving the UK. Another colleague has admitted to me privately that they are applying for almost any job that becomes available. These five individuals were all born in mainland Europe and all have been in the UK for many years, but they have found the ‘hostile’ environment of the Government and Brexit so toxic that they have decided to abandon the UK. The ‘settled status’ is anything but for many of the 3 million EU citizens who have made the UK their home. I’m sure that most of my UK colleagues will know at least one academic who has packed their bags, or have chosen not to take up an opportunity in the UK, as a consequence of Brexit. This brain drain weakens the intellectual base of UK Universities as we struggle to attract overseas students and lose colleagues elsewhere. Within and without UK academia, young Britons and EU citizens also tell me they are not optimistic about their futures in the UK, a gloomy disposition that I understand. Finally, a common concern among my colleagues is what will happen after 2020 to the UK’s opportunities to secure funding from the EC, and whether the UK Government will bridge the ~£800M funding gap per year from the public purse, if Brexit denies us access to those funding streams.

How Brexit will affect the free movement of people remains to be seen, but I do not understand the optimism of a recent pro-Brexit visitor born outside the EU, ironically only in the UK because of their employment on a Horizon 2020 EC-funded project. My lab’s most recent paper [https://rdcu.be/bg9k9], and the subject of talks I have given at conferences and other University Departments around the world, is co-authored by four folk from mainland Europe, three of whom have been welcomed to work in the UK and have even been supported by EC grants. The acknowledgements slide that I use for these seminars has as its backdrop the famous Banksy mural featuring a workman chipping away one of the stars from the EU flag, a metaphor for the UK’s imminent departure from the EU. I just hope that this metaphor does not extend to the UK’s STEM workforce else we risk losing our hard-earned international reputation as a place to do good science.

Not long after the referendum I was working with colleagues from overseas on a draft manuscript and unnoticed by me was a small change to my affiliation on the title page, from “United Kingdom” to “dis-United Kingdom”. My friend’s sense of fun has, sadly, turned out to be a very good prediction of the state of the nation; the country remains riven with division. Arguably, the biggest mistake that Mr. Cameron made was to hold a referendum in the first place in a vain attempt to avoid a civil war in the Tory party over Europe. The only thing that currently unites us is a general dissatisfaction with the outcome of 2 years’ negotiation with the EU27, a deal that has just been rejected by the UK Parliament in the biggest ever defeat suffered by a sitting Government. Mrs. May has, remarkably, just won a vote of no confidence and now the hard work must begin to come up with a cross-party consensus, aka plan B, acceptable to both the UK and the EU, a process that must involve the Labour party in opposition. The solution is either that our elected representatives take charge and make a final decision for us, remembering that referendums in the UK are advisory only; or come up with an orderly Brexit plan that is also acceptable to the EU27, which seems unlikely at this late stage without delaying Brexit; or go back to the people now we know what the withdrawal agreement entails and ask them to vote again. In this latter scenario, I would vote once more to remain whilst recognising that the structural reasons that drove the vote to leave in neglected areas of the country must be remedied.

Rick Lewis

Professor, Newcastle University

I'm a structural biologist who has an interest in understanding at the molecular level how bacteria grow and divide. Part of both division and growth cycles depend upon communication across the cytoplasmic membrane so that essential activities on the outside of the bacterial cell are co-ordinated with intracellular events. I have been at Newcastle University since 2003, after establishing then overseen the growth of structural biology within the University.

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