UK’s Great Universities Fate Uncertain with Brexit


The deed has been done. The plebiscite is in favor of those who want to leave the European Union (EU) and while the Conservative government has yet to reveal how Brexit will happen, people are already anticipating the impact it will have in business and society in the near future.

This includes UK's world class universities.

Life's work dedicated to science is being compromised

John Martin is an advanced medicine professor that teaches at the University College London (UCL) and Yale University, who considers the Brexit polls a self-inflicted wound.

Prof. Martin leads medical research at the UCL. His team is composed of the best researchers from all across Europe and some of their projects are funded by EU grants. Brexit not only makes the funding uncertain but also puts into question the ability to have the brightest minds in Europe on board.

One such project is the "small babies project" that has a €6 million budget. The research investigates fetal growth restriction which affects 300 infants per year. This is a disease of pregnant women where there is little blood flow in the womb which in turn affects babies, hindering their development. Some are born too small while others suffer from blindness, motor and learning disabilities and in some cases, death.

Given the risks involved in the research process, big pharmaceutical companies have shunned researching this disease. This is why Prof. Martin took on the difficult task and has successfully done animal trials of the treatment they have developed.

The team is preparing to test the treatment on humans next year but with the current turn of events he is doubtful this will happen.

He emphasizes the importance not just of funding but the ability to work collaboratively with a team of experts sharing not just resources but knowledge and insights that brings the benefits of these medical discoveries to a greater number of people. After Brexit, he knows it will be hard to work and collaborate with his current team researchers from Germany, Italy and France respectively.

It's saddening that years of biomedical work will get stalled or entirely scrapped all for what Dr. Martin calls an imagined notion of sovereignty.

A smaller college in Warwick faces the same dilemma. Prof. Nicholas Dale runs a biomedical company that investigates life-saving in vitro diagnostics, like Prof. Martin, he also heads an international team. His company, Sarissa is a small company that relies on critical supplies from Spain.

Prof. Dale is worried Brexit will add burden to companies like Sarissa with tariffs and possible additional bureaucratic processes. He is also anxious that UK will lose its voice in the industry's regulation after Brexit.

Brain drain all over again?

The case studies of Prof. Dale and Prof. Martin illustrates the intellectual impact of Brexit to universities. The lack of funding will mean researchers and students will look for better opportunities outside the UK.

Severing ties with the EU would also mean losing valuable access to talent within Europe. It will be harder to get foreign researchers and students on board.

The bleak situation of UK's universities reminded Nicholas Dale of the 1980s brain drain during the Thatcher government when the times were so hard there was literally "no jobs in British universities for research scientists". Noting that 4 of last month's Nobel Prize winners, Duncan Haldane, David Thouless, Michael Kosterlitz and Sir Fraser Stoddart are only a few of the British professors who sought opportunities in the US some 30 years ago.

A political perspective

Cambridge historian, Prof. Brendan Simms has a different opinion on Brexit. To him, this is a time for UK to renew itself. Noting that historically, Britain never "fitted in", Prof. Simms likened Brexit to the Reformation. He said it was time to embrace that Brexit will happen and that the more important question is the outcome: how Theresa May's government will execute Brexit and where these ensuing steps take the country and its relationship with the EU.

These sentiments of Prof. Simms echo a valid point that resonates with other academics, an entirely different discipline from science and medicine. The context of sovereignty is far more important than economics in politics.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of Cambridge wants to make sure the university makes the most out of Brexit. In order to do so, he points the question back to the government and asked they make clarifications so that institutions like Cambridge can assess their situation.

Brexit has been anticipated but until the plebiscite, perhaps only a few have considered the unexpected and now that it is here, it will test UK's government and society and perhaps the academe can be the voice of reason in laying down the next steps.

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