An uncertain future may cause UK researchers to move abroad

It’s six months to go until Brexit. At the time of writing, the UK’s government is largely split on whether to go along with Theresa May’s Chequers fudge the EU insists won’t work, or just to leave without agreement. It’s like a rubbish game of Deal or No Deal, where the good prize boxes all turned out to be no more than a Noel Edmunds fever dream.

Chances are, if you’re a Vote Leave advocate, you’re already preparing to brand this part of ‘Project Fear’. But given no one’s offered up anything to allay concerns beyond some claptrap about 1066 and a spitfire fly-by, it’s hard to see exactly what a scientist stands to gain by leaving the EU. Conversely, we have a very good picture of what science careers inside the EU look like: established funding mechanisms (particularly the successor to Horizon 2020); free movement of people; regulation of industries – particularly in the life sciences – and sharing of databases; ease of imports and exports; and access to the biggest single market in the world.

Is there anything that can be done? Currently almost 800,000 people have signed a petition for a final say on the Brexit referendum (something that was, let’s remember, never meant to be binding). It’s a move backed by, among others, Nobel winners Fraser Stoddart and Paul Nurse. As Stoddart told The Independent, ‘science is a family’ and Brexit will cause the best people to leave. The government has made it clear that it isn’t about to accept such arguments (besides, as one prominent leave campaigner said, apparently we’re sick of experts). Instead, the cries from Leave campaigners are usually variations on ’It’ll be OK’ or ‘Get out my pub’. For a lot of young researchers, I suspect that won’t be enough –  science is built on evidence rather than faith, after all.

Leavers have spent two years failing to explain what a career in science will look like when the UK exits the EU. If they can’t convince scientists (and I strongly suspect they won’t), our brightest minds will vote with their feet. Perhaps Project Fear isn’t about the consequences of leaving; perhaps it’s the intransigence to admit Brexit looks like a mistake.