Commuters walk across London Bridge against a backdrop of Tower Bridge during sunrise in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)  

Brexit Raises Concern U.K. Will Lose Key Scientists, Funds

(Bloomberg) -- Prominent scientists are sounding the alarm on Brexit.

Researchers in Britain worry that a sharp break in ties with the European Union or failure to work out a deal could lead to an exodus of highly skilled specialists, curtail funding and hinder collaboration. The concerns extend beyond the U.K. with scientists warning that Brexit could hurt Europe after decades of gains fueled by the flow of ideas and people across borders.

In a survey of more than 1,000 staff members at the Francis Crick Institute, the U.K.’s biggest biomedical research lab, 97 percent of scientists said that a “hard Brexit” would have an adverse impact on U.K. science.

“It’s pretty significant, frankly, how negative they are about Brexit and everything that goes with it,” Paul Nurse, director of the institute, said in an interview. “They’re not at all happy with the way negotiations have gone, with how seriously science is being taken, which as we know is ultimately an important driver of the economy, health and quality of life.”

Separately, more than two dozen Nobel Prize-winning scientists across Europe, including Nurse, have written to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calling for the closest possible post-Brexit cooperation between the U.K. and the EU to preserve research. Cooperation is vital to scientists’ bid to tackle disease, generate clean energy and develop new technologies, according to their letter.

Venki Ramakrishnan, who moved to the U.K. from the U.S. in 1999 and won a Nobel Prize in chemistry a decade later, said Britain and Europe have benefited significantly from an exchange of ideas, the movement of people and multiple sources of financial support. After falling well behind the U.S., partly due to two World Wars in the 20th century, European science has recovered and flourished, he said.

“I don’t want that to be lost,” he said in an interview. “That’s at risk if a leading science country like the U.K were to spin off from the rest of European science. I think it would be worse for us, but also bad for Europe.”

While the Crick -- named for one of the discoverers of DNA’s structure -- hasn’t lost staff due to Brexit so far, the survey also found that half of the scientists are less likely to stay in the U.K. when they leave the institute, and only 7 percent are confident that the country will continue to attract top research talent.

Others are worried about losing access to European Union funding post-Brexit, despite government pledges to replace that money.

“For Britain there would be a funding hit if that wasn’t restored, and there’s no guarantee that it will be,” Ramakrishnan said.

In the countdown to Brexit, the U.K. government is seeking to attract more investment from pharmaceutical companies and other health-care players. Drug companies are preparing to make hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment commitments in the U.K. as part of a government effort to boost the industry, John Bell, a University of Oxford scientist and architect of the strategy, said in an interview last month. That’s on top of investments announced last December by more than two dozen global companies, including GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Johnson & Johnson.

The Crick, which was formed in 2015 and moved into a new building in central London the following year, brings together scientists to try to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. Only one in 10 researchers is confident in the future of British science, while 4 percent believe that the government is committed to getting a good deal for the field, according to its survey.

“Our leadership role in science is under threat -- I think there’s no question,” said Nurse, a 2001 Nobel Prize winner for his work on cell cycle regulation. “I’ve thought quite hard about this. I don’t see any upside whatsoever. Not one.”

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