The Scientific Shambles of Brexit – What Now?

by Professor Stephen Curry & Dr Andrew Steele

 If ever there was a shambles worthy of being described as cosmic, it’s Brexit. A small majority voting in favour of one of two binary options representing a huge spectrum of possibilities can only mean one thing: whatever you do, most people are going to be grumpy.

Science fans are justified in feeling particularly grumpy. EU coordination and funding underpins all kinds of research, from medical stuff which saves lives, to stargazing which gives them meaning—and lots of brilliant and useful things in between. Flood defences, anyone? Or a cleaner environment?  Collaborating internationally is part of the DNA of science, but Brexit looks set to inflict some dangerous mutations.

The EU is particularly good at helping scientists collaborate across the continent, allowing them to share expertise, resources and facilities. One of my personal favourites is the giant metal doughnut of JET—the Joint European Torus—the world’s largest fusion reactor, nestled in the Oxfordshire countryside. This is where Europe’s scientists are finding out what hydrogen does when you heat it up to hundreds of millions of degrees, investigations that might one day give us near-limitless clean energy. But just this week, we learnt that the Article 50 bill will also pull us out of Euratom, the European organisation which oversees JET.

Most of the science community learnt of this barely a week ago. Sudden, unexpected decisions like this make it look as if the government is proceeding without giving a second thought to science. Even if you’re not a fan of fusion (hard to believe, but I have met some), that’s worrying. “First, they came for the plasma physicists,” will be your lament in 2019, “But I did not speak up because hasn’t fusion been 30 years away for the last 30 years? Hahaha. It’s funny because dramatic underinvestment has slowed development to the point where I can dismiss what could well be humanity’s future energy source with a sarcastic crack to make me sound knowledgeable.

“Sorry–got carried away. But my point is, after they’d come for the plasma physicists, I noticed that other kinds of science supported by the EU about which I didn’t have any cynical quips were also neglected in Brexit negotiations.”

That’s the situation we need to avoid, and that’s why we need everyone—scientists, science fans and even people who only grudgingly accept science has done some useful things—to speak out about the impacts of Brexit on research.

We help run Science is Vital—a grassroots campaign which is perhaps a little shambolic itself. We were formed back in 2010 by a small group of voluntary, part-time amateurs who juggle campaigning with the demands of our various day-jobs. Since then, we’ve learned that a small group of voluntary, part-time amateurs can shamble its way to getting science a hearing in the some of the highest offices in the land. But we’ve also learned  that we can’t do any of this stuff without  your help.

We all need to work together to make the case for science. And not ‘we’ in some warm, fuzzy, abstract, we’re-all-in-this-together way: we literally need you, reading this right now. Science may be vital, but it’s human interactions—all over the country—which are vital in convincing our friends, our neighbours, that bloke down the pub, and our politicians of that.

We learned that lesson again on Tuesday at the lobby of Parliament we organised to get the message across to MPs about the risks of Brexit to UK research. Thirty of us descended on Westminster and talked to as many MPs as we could. It might have been a bit shambolic at times—we only managed to grab Science Minister Jo Johnson by hollering at him after we noticed he’d just walked past—but we had real engagement. Our supporters were passionate and eloquent speaking to their MPs, some of them for the first time. It reinforced that age-old lesson: talking to people face-to-face is how you win hearts and minds.

We just need to make sure that next time, it’s not thirty of us, it’s 650, one for every MP in the Commons. We need to know that, next time we have a petition, it’ll be a yuge, beautiful petition—we do the best petitions!—because surely science is even more important than the admittedly important task of denying a state visit to Donald Trump? We have to make our elected representatives sit up and take notice. And we can’t do that without all of you.

So please, head over to the Science is Vital website and sign up for our mailing list. And, once you’ve done that, get three friends to do the same. If they then get three of their friends and so on, after seventeen rounds of that we’ll have signed up the whole population of the UK. (This kind of thinking is what happens when you let theoreticians organise a campaign.)

We’ve only just recovered from our day in Parliament so we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. But we’re convinced that our shambles can beat the Brexit shambles, if only it’s big enough.

Dr Andrew Steele is a computational biologist, fusion fan and researcher at the Francis Crick Institute.  Stephen Curry is a Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London whose favourite massive science thing is also doughnut-shaped.  Andrew is the Chair of ‘Science is Vital’ and Stephen is a member of the Advisory Board.