Brexit paralysis is hurting UK science, warns Indian-origin Nobel scientist Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

UK-based India-born Nobel Prize winning biologist Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has warned the British government that the uncertainty around Brexit is hurting science in Britain, with a dramatic drop in the number of leading researchers.

The President of the Royal Society, Britain’s key advocate for science, issued his latest warning as the organisation released a new analysis on Wednesday concluding that the UK is now a less attractive destination for top international science talent with 35 per cent fewer scientists coming through key schemes.

“The potential paralysis of a no-deal Brexit and the current state of chaos are hurting UK science and that is hurting the national interest,” said Ramakrishnan, who is popularly known as Venki. “We have seen a dramatic drop in the number of leading researchers who want to come to the UK. People do not want to gamble with their careers, when they have no sense of whether the UK will be willing and able to maintain its global scientific leadership,” the structural biologist said.

The 67-year-old leading scientist highlighted that the latest Royal Society analysis had found that UK science has missed out on around 0.5 billion euros a year because of the “uncertainty around Brexit”. The UK is due to leave the European Union (EU) by October 31 and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made a “do or die” pledge to exit with or without an agreement in place. The Royal Society has made repeated interventions to warn that a no-deal Brexit would severely hurt science and collaborative projects with the EU, including one named Horizon 2020.

The latest analysis noted: “Despite government underwrites in the event of no-deal – Brexit uncertainty is having a clear impact on the UK’s ability to attract funding and talent through the world’s largest international R&D investment programme.

“In 2015 – prior to the referendum – the UK secured 16 per cent of the total Horizon 2020 grants signed for in that year (in monetary terms). In 2018, this figure had fallen to just over 11 per cent.” Another example cited in the report is that of the Marie Sklodowska Curie (MSCA) Individual Fellowships, which are specifically designed to increase international mobility, encouraging top international talent to relocate to an overseas institution. The Royal Society claims the UK has traditionally performed head and shoulders above all other EU nations in attracting individuals via this programme. However, since the June 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit, this has seen a significant dent.

Figures reveal that in 2015, as many as 515 individuals took up MSCA Individual Fellowships in UK institutions. In 2018, the number had fallen significantly to 336.

“Uncertainty about the UK’s future participation and collaboration within European research programmes is clearly having a damaging impact. Despite various government underwrites, the confidence of researchers in the UK and those who we are hoping to attract is being undermined,” the Royal Society said.

Society President Sir Venki, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 for his contribution to science, has repeatedly spoken out against the threat of a no-deal Brexit. He has also called for an approach to immigration that enhances the UK’s science base and drives the economy, jobs and international competitiveness, after a previous Royal Society analysis found the UK over 400 per cent more expensive in its skilled work permits.

Ramakrishnan shared the 2009 chemistry Nobel Prize with Thomas Steitz of the Yale University and Ada Yonath of the Jerusalem-based Weizmann Institute of Science for discovering the precise structure of ribosomes – the molecular machines that manufacture proteins inside all living cells.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The government remains committed to becoming a world-leading place to carry out cutting-edge scientific research after we leave the EU.”

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