Thu, Oct 20, 2016 - Page 9 News List

British scientists fear a Brexit brain drain and loss of funding

By Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura  /  NY Times News Service, LONDON

When Adam Durant started his company analyzing climate-related threats to aircraft, he and his team of researchers symbolized the possibilities offered by the EU.

Soon after graduating from college, Durant received a prestigious EU grant to study atmospheric chemistry and conduct climate-related research. When he started his business, he hired staff from Belgium and France without having to sponsor their visas.

However, since Britain voted in June to leave the bloc, Durant has become the archetype of something very different: a nervous entrepreneur, unsure about future funding and even considering leaving the country.

His worries mirror those of the British business community at large, and the concerns appear to be weighing on the country’s economy.

Technically, nothing has changed since the referendum. However, a vast number of questions remain, including the shape of Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU and the long-term rights of European nationals now working in the country.

The widespread uncertainty, and the challenges that arise from it, are acutely felt in the scientific community, dependent as it is on long-term funding, cross-border mobility and international collaboration.

“It’s probable that the opportunities that existed pre-Brexit won’t exist next year,” Durant, 37, said. “Things are becoming more difficult.”

Britain has long been a global leader in scientific research because of world-class universities that produce top scientific papers.

In particular, the country excels at health sciences and advanced engineering, areas that have thrived partly because of factors tied to Britain’s membership in the bloc.

Though much of the debate before the referendum focused on Britain’s financial payments to the EU, the science sector has unquestionably benefited from membership, receiving net contributions of 3.4 billion euros (US$3.74 billion) from a variety of EU programs from 2007 to 2013.

EU money accounted for 40 percent of funding for cancer research in Britain over the past decade, according to Digital Science, a consulting firm based in London. In nanotechnology research, that figure is 62 percent, and in evolutionary biology, it is 67 percent.

Those resources have plugged the gap in falling British government funding, adjusted for inflation, and low levels of investment from Britain’s private sector, figures from Digital Science showed.

British businesses contribute the equivalent of 1.06 percent of their country’s GDP toward research and development, 80 percent less than what German companies contribute toward research and development in Germany.

The country has also attracted talent from across Europe. That is largely because of the relative ease of doing business in Britain, coupled with ecosystems developed around top universities, and that the EU’s free movement of labor means no citizen of a EU member country requires a visa to work in Britain.

About 30,000 scientists and researchers from member states are employed by British universities — equivalent to 20 percent of their teaching and research staff — and a full 60 percent of research papers in Britain are written with partners in the EU.

All of those factors are crucial to Durant and his fledgling business.

After getting his degree, he went on to obtain a doctorate. In 2007, he received a Marie Curie Fellowship, which finances research across the bloc. Then, after the eruption in 2010 of an Icelandic volcano that disrupted global air travel, he started Satavia.

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