Would Brexit prove interconnectedness matters for scientific competitiveness?
The academic walk of shame … turning up last, and late, straight from the airport to the opening session of an international conference.
Dragging my suitcase, wincing at every squeak of its wheels, I tried to find a seat at the back of the conference hall.
“Ah, the British delegate has arrived – welcome doctor! Better late than never,” said the conference host from the podium, just to ensure no-one was in any doubt who had missed the start.
“Thanks, er, sorry I’m late – trouble at the airport,” I replied with a croaky half-shout and embarrassed smile.
There wasn’t really trouble at the airport. It was just an elementary mistake. By habit, I joined the EU PASSPORTS line at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, only to be sent to the back of the long and slow-moving ALL OTHER PASSPORTS queue.
And, yes, the border guard in the booth did look rather pleased with himself.
Then came solemn consideration of whether or not I had the correct short-stay work permit.
“Yes, it is a business trip. But I’ll only be here for one night. I have a convention d’accueil …” Sigh. Still, I’m here now; the “partial participant” in the programme.
The coffee break
“It’s all gone a bit Swiss,” I explained to a couple of old colleagues from France and Germany over a tepid cup of tea and biscuit in the mid-morning break.
“When we … well, not that I did … but when Britain voted for Brexit, it meant that we rejected a basic EU principle: free movement of people.
“So the doors to new European projects started to close – just like they had to the Swiss a few years ago when they voted for limits on immigration. “I think we should have seen it coming, really.
“Just like the Swiss, we’ve had to buy-back limited access to European research programmes.
“So I can take part, but don’t expect me, or many other Brits for that matter, to be chairing European research projects any time soon. Let alone any influential EU committees and working groups. Gone are the days when one in three European projects were coordinated by a Brit.”
There was an earnest nod of understanding and, I think, sympathy. Then again, maybe it was relief? I couldn’t quite tell.
“Your Boris Johnson seemed to forget that when you speak in Britain, the rest of the world may also be listening,” my French colleague observed over a flaccid salad in the conference canteen a little later that day.
“His comments about ‘knickers to France’ before the referendum were very well remembered during the French presidential campaign.
“All of the candidates promised to be tough on the new British Prime Minister. And, as you’ll imagine, it was an easy and popular message. So when Sarkozy returned to the Élysée, it was inevitable that Boris would be made to feel as welcome as food poisoning. Sarkozy’s threat to ban imports of British lingerie was the coup de grâce of the Brexit talks.”
“Agreed,” said our German colleague. “The same happened in Germany. Trying to conclude two years of Brexit negotiations during an election year in France and Germany was unwise. There is no doubt domestic politics in Europe made treaty terms with the EU harder for Britain than they might otherwise have been.”
“Do you think anyone in Britain had thought of that when they set the referendum date?”
“Er, probably not,” I reply with a weary shrug. “But then, I think it’s true to say that hindsight is the world’s most abundant commodity.”
When in Paris … eat Spanish? A tapas restaurant in the second arrondissement was our destination at the end of the day’s proceedings. But our debate about Brexit continued.
“As a general rule of life, when you don’t know the answer, it’s wise to listen to the smartest people in the room,” I said, taking a large gulp of Rioja.
“There was a letter to The Times signed by 150 members of the Royal Society – including Hawking and all of the ‘big names’ – saying it would be a disaster for science.
“There were credible polls showing overwhelming support from academics to stay in Europe.
“Even Boris’s younger brother Jo, the Minister for Higher Education at the time, said that British research would suffer from a loss of access to European talent, collaboration and funding. The trouble with families, eh?
“But I think the Brexit campaign did a very good job of persuading people that Britain’s problems were someone else’s fault and that closing borders would be the start of things getting better.”
The second wave of tapas plates arrived. Bit of a worry these days … the pound doesn’t quite stretch as far in Europe. And claiming expenses – which were never particularly extensive – is frowned upon in these days of tightened budgets.
“But as you know, traffic through borders flows both ways,” the German observed while purposefully forking a ring of squid.
“Brexit will see talent flow out of Britain. It might happen gradually, but it will happen. Talent follows money; it’s the lesson of history. If you’re ambitious, you want to go where you can collaborate easily with the best people and work on the most prestigious projects.
“What’s the statistic? Perhaps one in five academics working in the UK came from the EU before Brexit? How quickly will that proportion shrink?
“We’re going to see more of the best British academics looking for work overseas, and fewer European or American academics seeing British universities as a good career choice. “Why work at the margins when you can be at the centre? We all like recognition, after all.”
Without hesitation, the French academic asked the killer question: “So tell us, are you looking for a job overseas yet?”
I took another gulp of Rioja and stopped worrying about the bill.
“Funny you should ask …”
Cheap hotel. Vague hangover. Flight to catch. Notes to read on the journey home … and a prevailing sense from last night that my European colleagues are still bewildered why Britain voted for Brexit.
Of course, colleagues knew the history. From Thatcher, through Major to Blair, Brown and Cameron, varying shades of Euroscepticism had become a staple of the British political diet over 40 years.
Even those who were instinctively pro-European had tempered their enthusiasm to fit the public mood – rather than seek to change it.
Still, the choice has been made. Research still happens. Budgets are tighter, and perhaps competition for funding is more intense than it was. World class British academics and world class British institutions didn’t see their reputations shrivel overnight because of the referendum vote. No, talent and quality still counts.
We have to make the best of the muddle. And on that note … must remember to use the “British Passports” channel when I get back home.
Featured image credit: Descrier
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