U.K. will continue to excel in science post-Brexit: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

The United Kingdom has played a pivotal role in shaping research in the European Union (EU), which is today a superpower in science. But post-Brexit, the future of science in the U.K., the fate of several EU-managed programmes and the funding and free exchange of scientists and students between the U.K. and the EU appear uncertain. The future of science in the U.K. now depends on how well policy makers negotiate with the EU to maintain status quo on many fronts. Having played an active role trying to swing the vote in favour of ‘Remain’, the scientific community will now draw up a plan to guide the future government in negotiations. In an email interview to me, Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and one of those involved in drawing up the plan, talks about the challenges, uncertainties, priorities and inherent strengths of science in the U.K.

Like most scientists, do you feel sad and disappointed after Brexit?

The vast majority of scientists in the U.K., including me, felt that Brexit was a bad outcome for both science and the country. So obviously we were disappointed. However, we live in a democracy and now need to see how to make the best of the decision and face the challenges ahead.

How do you see science and research post-Brexit?

In my opinion, despite the challenges, the U.K. will continue to excel in science because of a strong tradition of excellence that goes back several hundred years. However, there are some immediate problems. Science and research have always been international, especially in the U.K. This has been the case for much longer than the EU even existed. We are second only to the U.S. as a major international destination. So, it is quite important for us to maintain that [status], which in turn depends on the perception of being an open and welcoming destination for scientists and students. Science and research cannot flourish if there are strong barriers to mobility. We live in a global market for talent, and it is important for us to be able to attract the best from wherever they are. At the same time, it is important for us to realise that a large section of U.K. society does not want completely unrestricted immigration.

What role will you play in post-Brexit science parleys?

Many scientists in leadership positions, including people holding senior posts in the various academies as well as others, will be convening in the next few days and weeks to work out a coherent response to Brexit. We do not want to wait until a new cabinet is in place, but need to have some concrete plans and views ready so that when a new government takes over, it has a clear view from the scientific community that we hope will influence it in its negotiations.

What do you think were the main reasons why most scientists (both in the U.K. and in EU member countries) were against Brexit?

Scientists view migration as a two-way street and not just inward looking. Scientists and students from abroad expose our own young people to fresh insights and new expertise. Equally, it is important for young people in the U.K. to expand their horizons by being able to go abroad and work at will throughout Europe. This is why a large majority of scientists were for remaining in the EU.

Scientists from the U.K. played a huge role in trying to convince people of the advantages of being a part of the EU.  Have you seen your peers being so proactive on any issue before? Do you think the scientific community lacked the critical mass to swing the vote in its favour?

The scientific community was naturally active because this is one of the most important decisions in at least a generation. In a close vote, it is always tempting to wonder whether we could have done more to influence the vote. My own view is that science was only one of many factors people considered and probably far from the major one. Moreover, I think many of the feelings that influenced the vote have developed over a long period and both the scientific community and successive governments have ignored large sections of society rather than engaging with them. It is a lesson to us scientists that we must engage with broader society as a matter of course and not just when there is a major political decision to be made. Science cannot flourish without the broad support of the people and it is up to us to make the case that science and innovation, and the policies that nurture it, are good for the country as a whole.

The U.K.’s net contribution to the EU budget was around €8.8 billion and it received 10 per cent of its science funding from the EU. How much of this do you think will be allotted to science, post-Brexit?

Obviously nothing is certain until a new cabinet is in place. We will make a strong case that the overall investment in science should be protected. However, it is not simply a matter of protecting the budget. A developing consensus is that just as important are the collaborations and participations in European networks that were funded by the EU. So we hope to make the case for continuing these participations, as do several non-EU countries. This is something that we hope will be negotiated with the EU.

One of the main reasons why you moved from the U.S to the U.K. was the long-term availability of funding for basic research. Do you see this continuing after Brexit?  

There is absolutely no reason why this should change as a result of Brexit. The importance of science, including basic research, has been recognized by all parties and governments, and one of the strengths of U.K. science is its meritocratic nature.

Do you think Brexit will harm science in the U.K.?

The U.K. is one of the strongest scientific countries in the EU and indeed in the world. Within the EU, the U.K. has often successfully influenced both policy and the direction of research. Scientists from both the U.K. and the rest of Europe (many of whom have written to me) will certainly want to continue these interactions.

Much will depend on our being able to maintain our participation in large-scale Europe-wide science initiatives and programmes. If we are isolated, then it will certainly be detrimental to both parties, but I am optimistic that this won’t happen if common sense prevails.

Will Brexit harm U.K. science more than it would harm EU science?  

In a situation like this, I don’t believe there will be winners and losers. In other words, if we let very rigid and extreme positions prevail, both sides will be worse off. So it is quite important that we work towards an agreement that benefits both sides.

Will the result come in the way of a free exchange of scientists and students between the U.K. and the EU?

We need to make sure that such exchanges continue to flourish. A large fraction of our international scientists come from outside the EU. I myself came here from the U.S. I personally am for reducing barriers to all such exchange, not just between the rest of the EU and the U.K.

Do you foresee a flight of talent, particularly among young people, from the U.K.?

This is a real danger if, as a result of Brexit, we are perceived as a country hostile to immigration and not open to the world. We must therefore — and by this I mean the country’s leaders as well as academic and scientific leaders — make it very clear that people from abroad will continue to be welcome to work and study here. There has been strong condemnation from all parties about the few isolated incidents of xenophobia and racism in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, and such antisocial behaviour needs to be curbed promptly. Finally, the status of those EU citizens already working here must be clarified quickly. I would be for the government (and the leading candidates for leadership) to declare quickly their intention that EU citizens who are already gainfully employed here will be allowed to remain and their jobs will be secure. With the right attitudes and decisions, we can minimise [the] flight of talent and also continue to be an internationally attractive destination.

Despite the U.K. attracting talented scientists from EU member countries, scientists in the U.K. never complained about loss of opportunities, unlike the general population. What is the reason?  

Scientists have benefited from globalization and mobility and therefore see that despite the increased competition from other EU member countries, it was good for the enterprise as a whole. However, the benefits of such globalization and mobility were not evenly distributed in society. Large sections of society were possibly worse off. There is a lesson here for both governments and for those of us who are in highly skilled professions that we cannot afford to ignore other sections of society but must ensure that benefits of economic development are spread throughout society in a fair way.

Will researchers in the U.K. continue to benefit from European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, the European Research Council awards and the EU Erasmus exchange programme?  Also, will U.K. researchers be able to access the 75 billion Euro funding that Horizon 2020 provides? 

Many non-EU countries participate in a number of EU scientific programmes including Erasmus and Horizon 2020. The almost unanimous view I have heard from U.K. scientists is that we should persuade the government in its negotiations with the EU to continue our participation in these programmes. Obviously we would want the highest level of participation that is compatible with what is politically possible given the referendum results.

What will the fate of TRANSEURO be after Brexit? Will ongoing research funded by the EU through any of the many programmes continue till the end of the project term or should funding for each programs be renegotiated? 

I very much hope that all programmes that are currently funded will be allowed to continue till the end of the project term. Anything else would simply be too disruptive and completely unnecessary.

If business moves out of U.K., will it not lead to more trouble for the scientific community? 

This is certainly true, and the government needs to take steps to ensure that this does not happen. The U.K. has many significant advantages for business quite apart from its membership in the EU. I certainly hope that the government is able to negotiate conditions that provide a favourable climate for business and investment.

Do you see more or less opportunities for Indian students and researchers? Will U.K. universities become less glamorous to Indian and other foreign students?

Universities in the U.K. are attractive because of their international excellence, which in turn depends on our ability to attract the best from all over the world. People come here mainly because of our flourishing research and intellectual enterprise, and the U.K.’s membership in the EU is at best a secondary consideration even to those who come here from other parts of the EU. We need to ensure that we continue to attract the best regardless of the precise terms of our relationship with the EU. Clearly it will be a harder challenge, and it is therefore very important that we make the right decisions in the coming months.

Published in The Hindu on July 8, 2016