Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist currently based at CEED, University of Oslo, Norway.
Modern day science and research thrives on national and international collaborations. Many of the best research projects today rely on joint funding from multiple countries across continents. The Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) project is a good example of this concept, where India is also a major player.
Certain projects run on funding from multiple partner countries from the same continent. Notable examples from Europe are the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and CERN. And in the context of joint continental research projects, Horizon 2020, is organised by the European Research Council and the European Commission, is the most prestigious and heavily funded one in the whole world.
It is in this context that Brexit is going to have a crucial impact – on joint academic training, research jobs and foreign collaborations. Horizon 2020 is an EUR 80-billion project that aims to integrate and increase academic exchanges between scientists from different countries to make scientific discoveries. Indian scientists, both at senior and junior levels, form a good part of Horizon 2020 as a whole. This will include Indian researchers from the basic sciences, social sciences, medical sciences, technological sciences and so on. Thousands of accomplished scientists from the country will be working on different kinds of activities, e.g. theory, observations, lab work, experiments, field trips, instrumentation, computing, case studies, etc.
The talent pool integrated by the European Research Council (ERC), which funds Horizon 2020 via three grants (starting, consolidated and advanced), are nonpareil. And the UK has been playing a major role in this partnership over the years.
Brian Cox, the noted particle physicist and science communicator, told The Wire, “If we no longer participate in Horizon 2020 and future programs, the effect on research in the UK and Europe will be extremely negative.”
This is certainly concerning, not just for British or European scientists but also for the thousands from countries like India, Russia, China and Japan. Obviously there are many scientists in ERC projects from other non-EU countries in the world, but the numbers from scientifically advanced Asian countries greatly outnumber academics from the rest of the non-EU world.
In the final Brexit deal, if the UK plans to withdraw from the ERC as well as Horizon 2020, it will have unprecedented effects in the picture of inter- as well as intra-national research collaborations. In a direct sense, it can affect prospects, careers and salaries of many students and scientists based in the UK itself. In an indirect sense, it can drastically reduce travel opportunities and social mobility of scientists from developing nations, who are deeply involved in grand ERC projects based in the UK.
Participating in such projects benefits a large number of both UK as well as non-UK nationals. Hence, the nation’s withdrawal from such projects can lead to stagnating research as well as a sharp decline in the number of publications authored by British academics. Further, reduced travel funding will adversely impact collaborations and publications because scientists rely heavily on conferences and meetings to discuss their research with their peers. Such work-trips play an important role in advancing modern science. So it must be acknowledged that Brexit’s impact on research and global science will strike at multiple levels of academic activity.
It is also going to be a difficult task in the global diplomatic landscape. Shashi Tharoor, a Lok Sabha MP (Thiruvananthapuram), a former UN under secretary general and an international diplomat, said, “Regarding diplomacy, it is definitely both a challenging and exciting time for the diplomats involved in the process of negotiating Brexit’s terms, though, given the scale of challenges they face, it sure is a daunting task.”
Insufficient travel funds for international scientists, as well as increasing travel restrictions for students, can have a social impact as well. Tharoor added, “For the rest of us, there are larger things to contemplate – the backlash against globalisation, the reassertion of old fashioned nationalism in the face of eroding borders, the rise of anti-immigrant xenophobia and the risks of making national policy by populism. Donald Trump will be heartened by this result.”
Obviously, numerous foreign scientists and students are concerned with all these developments and its likely impact on their careers in the UK in the near future. Many live in the hope that lawmakers and diplomats will consider the importance of international collaborations and their long-term benefits to British society. After all, the latest pathbreaking scientific results – whether it be the Higgs boson, the LIGO gravitational waves discovery, the latest cancer medicines or the best supercomputers – were the result of integrating the science and scientists from multiple countries and cultures. No country in today’s world can afford to stay in isolation and make islands of their own when it comes to the highest levels of research and scholarship.