Brexit: a stormy future for UK science?

A few weeks ago, the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union in a referendum. I am a European Union citizen leading a research team in Leicester. Our work involves fly models of Parkinson’s disease and my team is made-up of young researchers from Europe and the UK.

When I got to work on Friday after the referendum, my colleagues in the lab were fairly worried and apprehensive about their future in the UK.

According to the Royal Society, which represents the country’s top scientists, many of these EU citizens are wondering whether they will be able to continue to work in the UK in two or three years’ time. As I write this, I think this is also a concern for my research team.

brexit-risk-to-uk-science
Brexit: a risk to UK science (credit: cnnmoney/shutterstock)

The campaign to leave the European Union urged voters to “Take Back control” but as I write this, the prime minister handed in his notice. The leader of the opposition is fighting a coup and with talk  of secession in Scotland and Northern Ireland the future seems uncertain.

The major risk factor for diseases such as Parkinson’s disease is age (see figure below). Age was also a major determinant for the Brexit.

According to an exit poll by Lord Ashcroft, a majority of older voters voted to Leave the EU (60% of voters aged 65 and over), while the younger generations voted overwhelmingly in the Remain camp (73% of voters aged 18-24).

Screenshot 2016-07-04 15.21.38
Unadjusted cumulative incidence versus mortality adjusted lifetime risk of Parkinson’s disease for a cohort of 563 patients. Adapted from Driver et al., DOI 10.1212/01.wnl.0000341769.50075.bb

Curiously, I suspect that the majority of the bright minds doing basic research in labs like mine are in the same age group that voted in the remain camp. Many of these young researchers are also non-UK citizens from the EU. This might be another of unexpected consequences of the Brexit: The older generations having a negative impact on the quality of young researchers working on age-related diseases in the UK.

The BBC News website wrote that Prof Sir Paul Nurse said that leaving jeopardises the world-class science that the UK is known for and so risks damaging the economy.”UK science will not thrive” unless free movement continues in any post-Brexit deal, he says. You can read his full account of the situation here.

No one knows what the future will bring but there may be trouble ahead for basic research in general. As basic research underpins clinical research, I am uncertain of the consequences for UK-based Parkinson’s research. See also a related post on this blog focusing on clinical research written by Deb Roberts, here.

Finally, I acknowledge that the European Union is not perfect and needs to be reformed. However, I cannot fail to acknowledge the positive impact that the EU had in my education as an european citizen. I was a student with the european Erasmus programme in Italy, together with University students from all over Europe, including the UK. This not only gave me an early opportunity to study in a foreign country but also gave me and my ERASMUS colleagues a positive sense of an european identity that remains to this day.

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Number of Erasmus students per year from 1987 to 2012 (source: European Commission). The Erasmus programme is a European Union student exchange programme established in 1987. This allows students from across the EU to study in a different county. Giving young people the opportunity to study and live in another country during their formative years is priceless. This graph shows the cumulative increase in Erasmus students from 1987.

 

Finally, despite the current uncertainty, which extends beyond the research and education sectors, the only option for the time being is just to get on with our work and fingers crossed the next UK government manages to steady the ship..

L. Miguel Martins

The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this post are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing any official view of the East Midlands Parkinson’s Research Network 

LDC

2 comments

  1. Don’t forget the older generations lived through wars, rationing and sacrifice and so also deserve a say in the future of their country. The EU has shown itself to be unreformable and that is the crux of the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

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