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Uncertainty Over Brexit Is "Corroding" British Science, Says House Of Lords

In a new report, peers said the government was not doing enough to reassure EU scientists that they have a future in the UK, and that could hurt the economy.

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The aftermath of the EU referendum is "having a corrosive effect" on British science by making the country a less attractive place for talented scientists, according to a new report from the House of Lords.

The Lords science and technology select committee said the government's slow response to the referendum had failed to reassure European scientists in the UK and UK scientists working abroad, and meant British science was in danger of losing the ability to attract top talent.

That could have a negative impact on the UK economy in the longer term, the peers said in the report, published on Tuesday.

The committee was following up on the major report it published before the referendum into what the EU does for British science.

The peers said that to make it clear Britain is still a centre for cutting-edge science, the government should look into hosting a major new international research collaboration "of a scale comparable to the Francis Crick Institute [a major new bioscience research centre in London] or the Diamond Light Source [a particle accelerator in Oxfordshire]".

They also recommended actively seeking out "outstanding scientific leaders" around the world and enticing them to Britain with offers of long-term research funding and support. The report said "it is not enough to allow talented scientists from around the world to work in the UK: we must attract them vigorously".

The report also noted that although the government has pledged to match any European grants applied for before the UK leaves the EU, the terms of those grants will expire within a few years. If they are not replaced, this will "undermine" the benefit of the recent announcement that the government is to provide £2 billion extra science spending per year. The authors suggested the government make it clear that the science budget will be maintained in the longer term.

"They're being pretty feisty," Andrew Steele, a computational biologist at the Crick and chair of the science campaign group Science is Vital, told BuzzFeed News. "They're worried about the reputational consequences for British science of leaving the EU."

Those consequences are already being felt, he said, pointing to a report in the journal Nature which showed that researchers at the University of Sheffield were dropped from an EU grant proposal because it was feared their inclusion would "compromise" the project.

"There are a few dozen examples of research being disrupted and of funding going elsewhere," Steele says. "[The committee] is saying we need to make it clear we're open for business, make a big splash, attract all the big names – 'we've got lots of money, we've got a shiny new institute, come and set up shop, we're a good place to spend a chunk of your career'."

The government is "making all the noises to suggest it doesn't want to screw science", he says, and the £2 billion increase is very welcome, but the lack of detail at this stage means that it's hard to know what the UK science landscape will look like in a few years.

The report comes as concerns grow among the British scientific community over the possible impacts of Brexit. Some scientists are leaving Britain to work elsewhere and others have expressed fears over how leaving the EU will reduce opportunities for British science.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said in a statement responding to the report that he would "carefully consider the recommendations made in the Committee’s report and respond in the new year”.

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Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Tom Chivers at tom.chivers@buzzfeed.com.

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