How Does ‘Brexit’ Affect Science?

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, 13 Nobel Prize winners warned that departing the EU would be bad for British scientific research.

On June 23, 2016, voters in the United Kingdom decided to break with the European Union, making a so-called “Brexit.”

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, 13 Nobel Prize winners warned that departing the EU would be bad for British scientific research. Stephen Hawking said that the move would be “a disaster.”

On June 17, 2016, Ira spoke with Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at Imperial College in London, about what effects Brexit could have on scientific research in the UK. The following is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

IRA FLATOW: Is this a topic of discussion in the UK?

STEPHEN CURRY: We’re not really talking about anything else at the moment. And we haven’t been for the last few weeks. And I think it will carry on till next Thursday as well. And beyond.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. So scientists, they’re divided? Are they really into two separate camps on this?

STEPHEN CURRY: No. I don’t think that’s really the case. Nature did a poll. I don’t know how scientific it was, but it’s somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of scientists working in the UK are very much in the “remain” camp and see the EU as a good thing. There is a minority that would favor exiting, and there is a campaign group called Scientists for Britain that is trying to put that argument. Most scientists are in favor.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that as the good thing. Why is that a good thing?

STEPHEN CURRY: Well, I think many scientists working in today recognize that science in its bones is an international activity, and that the EU is a tremendous facility for scientists collaborating together. So in the UK certainly, we do extremely well out of the European Funding Council, which is one of the major funders of European science and facilitates lots of collaborative grants that involve scientists working together across the countries of the European Union.

And it also facilitates sort of exchange of staff between different countries, both Ph.D. level, post-doctoral level, but also at more senior-staff level. In my own department, we have several members of staff who are European nationals, but they apply for jobs in the UK on the same footing as UK citizens. And that’s actually one of the secrets of the strength of UK science is that people competing for jobs—they are competing with scientists from all over the world. And that helps to raise everybody’s game. So it’s seen as a major force for good in UK science. By most people.

IRA FLATOW: So the bad thing, I guess, is everything that you said opposite of why it would be bad for the UK.

STEPHEN CURRY: Well, yes. That’s the case. And if you look at the case that the Scientists for Britain is making for leaving, they’re not even mounting a case that if we leave the EU, UK science will suddenly leap forward, [and] everything will be much better. The best that they’re able to argue, and the case that they’re making, is that it won’t hurt.

And so that’s the level of their argument. And actually that is not even a very good argument, because when you look at the evidence, I think most people would agree that, actually, it will hurt severely the capacity of UK to compete on the international stage.

IRA FLATOW: Would that change immigration policy post-Brexit? Could that affect science funding?

STEPHEN CURRY: I think it certainly could, because who knows exactly what will happen if the UK votes to leave the European Union? If the UK wants to trade with a single market, then they will have to agree to freedom of movement, and so, actually, that would then mean that you have the same exchange of nationalities and people between different countries as we have now.

And I imagine that if the Brexit campaign wins, a lot of their campaign is predicated on getting control of immigration, and so there are likely to be more border controls.


STEPHEN CURRY: And already I know from talking to European colleagues both here and on the continent, they see that, actually, it’s being rather poisonous to bear. There’s an awful lot of people from Europe working in the UK at the minute [who] feel that, actually, the atmosphere has changed.


STEPHEN CURRY: It has darkened somewhat. And it seems a less friendly place to come and work, and so I think already there’s reputation damage that would be reinforced.

IRA FLATOW: Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College in London.

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About Brandon Echter

Brandon Echter was Science Friday’s digital managing editor. He loves space, sloths, and cephalopods, and his aesthetic is “cultivated schlub.”

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