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Categories: Influencing Policy17 January 20195.2 min read

Developing a view on Brexit

Every few years there comes an event that sits in our collective memories: each of us can say with total clarity where we were at that moment. I have no clear memory of voting on 23 June 2016, but 24 June found me sitting on a friend’s sofa watching the news. As the minutes ticked by neither of us got ready for work and we simply sat and watched as we tried to process the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU.

As the Policy Lead for the Sanger Institute it’s been my job to understand the impact that Brexit will have on the Institute and our science. A Nature poll in the run up to the 2016 referendum showed that 83 per cent of active UK researchers supported remain, and 5 per cent were undecided. I asked people here what their views were. At two events covering nearly 200 postdocs, faculty, senior scientists and institute leadership, only two people put their hands up for leave when asked.

Nature journal poll of active UK researchers showing that the vast majority supported remain in the EU

I have been acutely conscious of the diversity of views on EU membership within the Institute, locally and nationally. As I have gathered evidence and developed our positions I have tried to put our thoughts and views to people across the spectrum. What has become starkly clear to me is the Institute is a centre of global scientific excellence, and the effects on our science of leaving the EU are almost uniformly negative. Purely in terms of science, as far as EU membership goes the UK was having its cake and eating it. Nothing proposed so far represents a better deal for UK science and scientists than what we have as a member state. This is why all the Institute’s communications on Brexit express concern.

Global talents bring world-class success

Over the past two years, I have spent a lot of time researching where our staff come from, how different skill sets and job families are reliant on immigration and EU citizens. At the same time, growing our own talent, and developing UK scientific capabilities have been high on our agenda, but we have never viewed these activities as an alternative for global recruitment. Rather, we consider developing UK talent as a way to improve the UK’s global scientific standing through the subsequent exchange of ideas and knowledge by the movement of people.

The mix of research and support staff at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as measured in December 2017
The mix of research and support staff at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as measured in December 2017

Many of our staff travel for work. Freedom of movement has supported powerful EU collaborations and helped attract talented staff and students, to make a vibrant scientific community. At the same time I’ve seen how restrictions on travel outside the EU have created challenges for other projects. These problems are not insurmountable, but they cause delays and cost money.

Immigration controls will cost science

Immigration costs will rise by 170% if the UK Government's plans are enacted

Immigration policy has become inextricably linked with the impacts of Brexit. Every change to the UK’s immigration rules will affect EU citizens. As an example of the impact of ending freedom of movement, the Institute covers some visa and settlement costs for staff on top of administration costs. If the Government’s proposals for immigration come into force we are facing a 170 per cent increase in costs associated with immigration, this means us spending more than £0.8 million over the next 5 years on visas. This is not good for us, and it’s not good for the UK. When sequencing one human genome costs less than £1,000, £800,000 could buy a lot of science.

EU funding fuels vital collaborations

EU funding helps to drive international collaborations, vital for science that address global issues
EU funding helps to drive international collaborations, vital for science that address global issues

The Sanger Institute is in a privileged position with the majority of its funding coming from Wellcome. Loss of funding from the EU does not represent a financial threat to the Institute, but research funding is not just about the money. Our science is exceptionally collaborative and we work at scale.

The EU’s funding priorities are not the same as the UK research council’s priorities, and the EU’s funding streams often represent a better strategic fit for us than those in the UK, as they enable the kind of science we do. Perhaps more importantly it gives us choices and more options, and enables us to tackle complex global health challenges.

International teams foster a world of new ideas

The Sanger Institute has staff from over 50 countries. These staff bring ideas and knowledge; their perspectives challenge the status quo and received wisdom. Our science is constantly pushed on by our interactions with collaborators and by staff who see scientific and societal challenges in a different way from those of us who grew up in the grey light of this rain-soaked rock in the Atlantic ocean. The rhetoric and proposals around Brexit make the UK more unappealing than the wettest summer ever could.

With the Withdrawal Bill having been roundly rejected by Parliament we are once more thrown to a new level of uncertainty. Paradoxically, the terms of our exit from Europe is no longer the national priority, as the questions of a general election and people’s vote bring the Brexit process to a standstill. While the pundits go to work on the different possible scenarios and configurations of votes of confidence, elections and referenda, the Sanger Institute finds itself more certain than ever before that science is a global endeavour. Science is a natural diplomat.

Historically, scientific collaborations have built friendships and partnerships between countries even where formal diplomatic relations have been strained. We must be close with our European colleagues and more can and must be done to engage with the rest of the world. We are a single institute on a small island, but we have been made big by the global sum of our parts.

About the author

Sarion Bowers is Policy Lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute