UK’s decision to leave the EU has been an emotional topic. Policy makers have finally begun to devise a plan in earnest, and the scientific community waits anxiously to understand the consequences for British and European science. Fusion research in particular has benefited from international collaboration, and the Joint European Torus (JET) based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in the UK is at its forefront. However, funding challenges, restricted mobility and the complication of multi-national collaborations may hurt the future of British scientific research. Author Alyssa Mello spoke to international researchers.

Unattractive prospects at home

Eventually, many questions will be answered as agreements are signed. For those already established in their careers, it may be easy enough to wait and see how the dice falls. However, many students will not have this luxury. Natalie Wilson is nearing the completion of her Master’s at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and remarks, “Initially, my plan was probably to go back to the UK and take back all the experiences that I have had here and incorporate those into a research group back home. But now, I think the UK looks unattractive. I think the main reason for that is just the uncertainty around what is going to happen.”

Making it harder to cross the channel

Sebastian Busch. Pictures: A. Mello

Sebastian Busch. Pictures: A. Mello

While the camaraderie of European and British science appears to have risen above the anti-foreigner rhetoric surrounding the UK’s referendum, a withdrawal from the EU may nevertheless harm international cooperation. Scientists who are choosing between similar positions in EU vs. non-EU countries may be deterred by the added complexity of the latter. While acknowledging that, for many the immediate concern is funding, Dr Sebastian Busch of the Heinz-Maier-Leibnitz Center in Munich “fear[s] much more for exchange, mobility, and ultimately collaborations across the channel.” As Dr Busch says, “For me, the crucial point is that being part of the European Union is about belonging together and having a common cause; the outcome of the referendum feels like a rejection of these ideas and of their proponents.”

More than the sum of its parts

Jonathan Finley

Jonathan Finley

A great deal of the debate around the referendum addressed the economics of remaining or leaving the EU. In science, however, monetary profit is often an inadequate measure of value. Prof Jonathan Finley of the Walter Schottky Institute remarks, “EU projects rarely bring in huge amounts of money but they do something much more than that – they catalyse international collaboration and, in my experience, are always more than the sum of their parts. As such, they incubate new projects by putting young scientists into touch with each other.”

Furthermore, cutting edge research often requires immense resources and, with regards to the financial considerations, Finley notes that “the various EU schemes for funding science are a wonderful way for European science to collectively compete with large scale coordinated projects in USA and Japan – especially flagship projects that would be unthinkable for domestic support.”

Cracks in the crystal ball

It is impossible to say exactly how the ‘Brexit’ will impact British and European science, but the extended limbo has certainly proved stressful for many. Official statements were quick to assure that European funding and collaborations are secure for the time being. Nevertheless, as Prof Steve Cowley of UKAEA says of JET, the future is “much more uncertain”. Indeed, it seems to be with mostly braced and heavy hearts that British and European scientists await the outcomes of official negotiations.

Alyssa Mello. Picture: privateComing from a background in film, I discovered that my favorite stories to share were about science. I’m currently pursuing a second bachelors in physics and hoping to make scientific communication a part of a larger research career. Fusion is certainly one of the most vital and interesting topics of the near future, and one that showcases the potential of international scientific collaboration.

Alyssa T. Mello (27) from the USA is currently based at Munich, Germany. (Picture: private)