"There is still a chance of averting a no-deal Brexit"

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, on British plans to leave the EU and their implications for science

June 26, 2019

The conditions under which Britain will leave the European Union have been completely open since the British Parliament rejected the withdrawal treaty negotiated with Brussels. Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate and President of the renowned Royal Society, has been fighting the worst case for months: a no-deal Brexit. Should it come to pass, he fears massive disadvantages for science in the country. Ramakrishnan is taking part in a panel discussion on the future of Europe at the Max Planck Society's annual meeting this week. Ahead of the meeting, he outlined his views of Brexit and its consequences in an interview.

Sir Venki, three years ago, British citizens voted to leave the EU. Have you noticed any changes for scientific research or in the scientific community since then?

There have been anecdotal reports of people either leaving, wanting to leave or not coming because of Brexit. However, when we look at the numbers and compare them to previous years, it is hard to see a real difference so far. Our worry is that by the time we can actually measure a real difference, it will be too late. People’s perception of Britain could have changed for the worse. We are doing everything we can to make sure that as far as the science community is concerned, the UK is still seen as welcoming and fully collaborative.

The conservative party is looking for a successor to Prime Minister Theresa May. The possible candidates are in favour of leaving the EU quickly. Do you think a no-deal Brexit is now more likely?

There is still a chance of averting a no-deal Brexit because most people realise that it is in nobody’s interest. Parliament is against it, and most sectors including business and unions are against it, along with the science community. Currently, one in six of research staff come from other EEA countries. And many other areas such as the NHS also rely on workers from overseas. A no-deal Brexit would make it harder to recruit such staff and would send a bad signal to those already here.

In case of a no-deal Brexit, what financial consequences do you expect for scientific research in Britain?

The loss of funding would be about 0.5-1B euros. In addition, it is not just about universities and academic institutes. About 17% of R&D funding in small and medium business enterprises (SMEs) also comes from the EU. However, I should point out that the loss is not just about money. It is about maintaining collaborations, networks and having a say in large-scale projects and the future of science in Europe, and having a truly Europe-wide pool of talent.

Theresa May announced an extra investment in research and development worth £2 billion a year by 2020. Couldn't this be an advantage for science?

This is welcome, and we have a commitment to invest 2.4% of GDP by 2027. The next step must be a commitment in the longer term. It is worth noting that we are currently well below the OECD average. If we lost funding as a result of hard Brexit, then it could negate a lot of this increase. It is ironic that we have strong support for science and technology across all parties, while at the same time for Brexit, which would damage science.

What further consequences would a no-deal Brexit have for British science?

Science has always been an international enterprise, flourishing when the exchange of ideas and expertise is facilitated by easy movement of people. The UK has flourished scientifically by being open: it is second only to the USA as an international scientific destination. One of the main consequences of a no-deal Brexit is that it would damage the reputation of the UK as a welcoming and open society.

Interview: Mechthild Zimmermann

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