Stepping up to become the head of a physics department is a major challenge at any time, but the current external situation is a world away from the landscape on day one, only nine weeks ago.
Since the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU, the political earthquake and its aftershocks have been dramatic, resulting in a shiny new prime minister, the divergence of science funding and universities into separate government departments, and the unleashing of xenophobia in society.
Brexit provides higher education institutions, and specifically UK science, with serious medium-term financial challenges, despite assurances from the science and universities minister Jo Johnson and his new boss Theresa May in her letter to Sir Paul Nurse, which includes the promise that “we are not turning our backs on European scientists”.
Within a few days of the referendum, academic colleagues from other EU nations were expressing legitimate concern about their long-term prospects within the UK. Senior management here have endeavoured to provide reassurances, but uncertainty still reigns a full month on from the referendum. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are simply too many unknown unknowns.
On the long night of results following the vote, Sheffield provided a preview of the national mood, voting 51% in favour of leaving the EU. Physics in Sheffield is typical of other mid-sized Russell Group science departments, with 20% of our academic staff and researchers originating from other EU countries, and close to 20% of our research income over the past five years resulting from European funding.
Much of the impact of Brexit on UK research has focused on continued access to European Research Council funding, which has helped to plug the shortfall in funding resulting from the flat-cash RCUK settlements over the past decade. But collaboration between scientists across Europe is also under threat. Carlos Moedas, European commissioner for research, science and innovation reminded the audience at last week’s EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester that: “Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality. So I urge the European scientific community to continue to choose their project partners on the basis of excellence.”
This laudable goal contrasted sharply with a message forwarded to me by one of my colleagues from the lead coordinator of a planned European Network consortium which made the situation on the ground crystal clear: “I regret to inform you that in the end we decided to not include your group in the consortium. The main reason of this decision concerns the Brexit and all the incertitude it brings. It may seem a very drastic decision, but we decided to ‘remove’ the problem at the base.”
The EU referendum has cast a huge shadow, with my personal priorities focused on three aspects: people, people and people.
First, an unqualified commitment must be given to research staff from other EU nations working in the UK that they be allowed to remain indefinitely. These staff are here because they were the best applicants for their jobs, so losing them would reduce the quality of UK science, despite the assurance from our new prime minister of a “positive outcome for UK science as we exit the EU”.
Second, any shortfall in science funding must be underwritten should UK-based researchers be denied access to Horizon 2020 funding. Otherwise ERC holders – our star researchers – will consider transferring their grants to other EU countries, or look elsewhere. Universities may be able to underwrite Horizon 2020 funded PhD studentships extending beyond 2018, but can’t do the same for EU funded research associates.
Finally, the government must be proactive in countering the view that the UK is not welcoming to international researchers. Concerns about the UK restricting the mobility of scientists after Brexit lay behind the decision to uninvite my colleague from the proposed Network. International students enrich our campuses and cities, and I am immensely proud that the University of Sheffield has been proactive in embracing international students through our We Are International campaign.
These issues won’t be addressed without direct engagement with politicians, so whether you intend to write to your MP, contribute to the IOP submission to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry or interact in another way please do so, to minimise short-term damage to UK science, with potentially long-term consequences.
Becoming head of department hasn’t all been doom and gloom. One high point involved giving a congratulatory speech to new University of Sheffield graduates two weeks ago, especially having served as departmental director of learning and teaching over the past four years. Still, as I emphasised to students celebrating the end of their studies, challenges lie ahead for them in their future careers – and for universities across the UK.
- You can read more about the emails sent to Paul over at Nature News.
He has co-authored a monograph devoted to hot luminous stars and starburst galaxies, co-authored more than 130 journal papers, including the identification of the most massive stars currently known in the nearby universe.
He completed a PhD in astrophysics from University College London in 1993, held a Royal Society University Research Fellowship over 1998–2006, and has received telescope awards with Hubble, Spitzer, Herschel, ESO and Gemini as principal investigator.
He is active in outreach activities, including as a contributor to a YouTube channel Deep Sky Videos. He is currently director of learning and teaching and interim head of department for the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy.