UK Science Still Reeling After Brexit Vote

Well, it’s been over a week since the shocking result of the UK referendum, indicating that 52% of the British public want to leave the EU.

The news hit the UK scientific community like a ton of bricks, with Chemistry World describing the general feeling as “dismay and uncertainty”. Indeed, the result was generally not welcome in chemistry departments around the UK, which often receive a significant amount of funding from EU sources. However, the concerns span more than just funding. Dominic Tildesley, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry stated that there is now “considerable uncertainty about how an EU exit will affect access to EU funding for research, the freedom of researchers to work across the EU and the application of EU regulations across the science and technology sector.” – highlighting the various ways that the ‘Brexit’ may impact our sector.

Universities across the country have scrambled to reassure staff and students alike that their situation will not change in the near future. After all, the UK is still a member of the EU at this current time. The Russell Group of research intensive universities has also said it would be seeking assurances from the government that staff and students from Europe would be able to continue working and studying in the UK after it leaves the EU. This is a concern for many people, whose future hangs in the balance as negotiations with the EU begin. It would be a terrible shame if the extremely bright workforce we currently import from the EU is lost. I myself have worked with terrific students and post-docs from the continent, who may not have chosen to come here had the ease of movement between EU nations not been possible. Furthermore, many EU citizens are feeling less welcome in the UK, following a spate of xenophobic incidents both before and after the referendum results.

Many researchers are focusing their immediate concerns on keeping the UK in the Horizon 2020 programme – the EU’s €74.8-billion (US$82.9-billion) programme of research grants. Indeed, John Womersley, chief executive of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, says this should be the community’s top — and only — objective. Switzerland has been removed from the programme following its restrictions on the free movement of people between itself and the EU, so the UK must tread carefully to ensure this does not happen to us as well. However, this will prove extremely difficult, as immigration was used as a key factor in the Vote Leave campaign.

All in all, it’s quite a worrying time to be involved in science in the UK. The referendum result was a shock to a group of people who, as far as we all could tell, were overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the EU. All we can do is push the government to make the protection science funding and the UK’s reputation as a centre for excellent scientific research a priority, and wait with bated breath.

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UK at risk of losing it’s ‘science superpower’ status

The UK government needs to commit to spend more on scientific research and development over the long term if we have any chance of retaining our ‘superpower’ status amongst our competitors around the world, according to a report published by the House of Commons science and technology committee this month.

With the government’s spending review being due later this month, many scientists around the country are concerned that the science budget is going to suffer, and this report insists we will fall behind if this happens. The report states that cuts in spending “put UK competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at risk”, and that more needs to be done for us to reach the EU target of 3% of the GDP going into science R&D investment.

The future is looking very uncertain at the moment, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer convincing the Treasury, local governments and departments of transport and environment to agree to 30% budget cuts, and the fear is science funding will be the next in the firing line.

The UK has been holding its own in recent times, but if funding is cut, this may soon change, and we will begin to lose our credibility as a centre of technology and innovation if this happens. We have so much potential for great scientific discovery and development, and it could be catastrophic if funding causes this to crumble. It’s not only in our interest as scientists to protect R&D in this country, but as members of the British public. I hope George Osborne thinks very carefully before he decides the fate of science funding for all of us.

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Tid Bit: Alan Turing Institute to Be Set Up in Britain

 

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In yesterday’s budget, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced that an institute named after World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing will be set up in Britain, which will focus on new ways of collecting, organising and analysing large sets of data.

The facility will cost the government £42m over five years, and is part of a new £222m science package.

Alan Turing lived in Mr Osborne’s own constituency of Tatton, Cheshire, and was a brilliant mathematician whose work greatly helped Allied forces read German messages enciphered with the Enigma machine. His code-breaking efforts allowed the war to be ended sooner, saving thousand of lives.

Unfortunately, Turing was persecuted for his sexuality and, after being convicted of gross indecency, was chemically castrated in 1952. Following years of campaigning, however, he was granted a posthumous Royal pardon in December last year. Now, finally, his great work can be given the recognition it deserves, with the government hoping that this institute will lead the way in the use of so-called ‘big data’.

The government’s science package will also provide £106m to new centres for doctoral training, £55m for the development of cell therapy manufacturing and £19m for a Graphene Open Access Innovation Centre.

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Tid Bit: Is Graphene Really a Wonder Material?

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I came across this article by the BBC Science Editor David Shukman, and thought it made for an interesting read.

Every single chemist in the world has heard of graphene – the material made up of a single sheet of graphite with astounding and unique properties. Millions of pounds of funding is being pumped into graphene research, and there are already thousands of patents on graphene, more than 400 being held by Samsung.

But is graphene really the wonder material everyone seems to think it is?

This article considers the words of a senior British professor, who says that graphene is a ‘waste of money’, but the ‘technology is too limited’.

Certainly, there is a price to pay for graphene’s amazing properties, such as very high conductance, strength and flexibility. For many applications, graphene has to be very pure, which can limit its industrial viability. However, supporters of graphene argue that when inventions are designed with graphene in mind, there is still real potential for it to be a success. This makes supporting graphene a bit of a financial gamble – if it can be incorporated into upcoming technology, it could change everything, but if it turns out there are too many technical issues with the material, it could just as easily fall flat.

From a purely fundamental point of view, graphene is a wonder material. Its current potential in a wide variety of areas of chemistry, materials science and even medicine make it still an exciting and invigorating research subject, but whether it is worth all of the money currently being funneled into it remains to be seen.

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News: How the Shutdown will Affect U.S Science

I’m sure many of you are aware of today’s government shutdown in the U.S.A. Because of congress being unable to decide on a budget for the next year, federal agencies have been forced to shut down until the matter is resolved. Unfortunately, this includes bodies in overseeing science funding and research, and so this shutdown could have disastrous effects on U.S science.

This article on the Nature website goes into detail about how the situation has affected scientists in the U.S, and what it could mean for their future and the future of their research.

It is a very serious situation. Government scientists have been told to stay at home without pay, grants aren’t being processed and research is being abandoned until further notice, which could mean valuable experiments are ruined. This could have terrible consequences for vital healthcare research into the treatment of diseases, as clinical trials come to a sudden halt.  Furthermore, studies into influenza will be put on hold just as the flu season is about to begin in America.

Government phones and e-mails have been taken out of service, leaving scientists unable to carry out work at home.

A NASA mission to study the atmosphere on Mars could be delayed until 2016 if the shutdown leads to its November launch window being missed. NASA have already shutdown their communications with the public, and won’t be contactable until the government resolves the issue.

Research in the U.S.A has already had to survive funding cuts imposed by the government, and the fate of many research groups was already unknown. Scientists in every country spend a great deal of their time desperately trying to churn up enough funding to keep their research going, and if this shutdown doesn’t end soon, it could spell certain disaster for U.S Science and the loss of important studies and results for the science community as a whole.

I’ll keep you posted!

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