In March, I had a great scientific opportunity: a 2.5 million euro grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to study how pathogenic bacteria exchange genes with each other to become more infectious or to escape treatments such as antibiotics. The ERC Advanced Fellowship is a very prestigious award, and it meant that me and the scientists in my lab at Imperial College London could finally get to work on the questions and experiments we had been planning for the past few years. .
But a few weeks later, I was informed that funding was in jeopardy. Because the UK failed to negotiate a deal to remain in the EU’s Horizon Europe funding scheme – which it had previously pledged to do – my grant, along with those of 142 others scientists based in the United Kingdom, could not be accepted in this country.
This posed a huge problem. I have started discussing with EU-based universities the possibility of moving the research program, but eight to ten other scientists work under me in my own laboratory, and I am the current director of the MRC Center for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection in the UK. Scientists work in deeply connected networks of collaborators and institutions, and moving to France or Spain, even on a part-time basis, would disrupt far more than just this research project.
In the end, I didn’t move, so I lost the money. It was very painful. It always hurts. The UK government has indicated that it will provide replacement funding through its own research and innovation program, but it is not yet entirely clear whether it will meet all the conditions of the ERC programs – the prestige, flexibility, connections. As it stands, that part of our research is stalled until we are sure we have the kind of stability we need to do science. I know others made the difficult decision leave the country and resume their work in Europe.
But this problem is much more important than our work or that of the other researchers concerned. Scientists can do amazing and innovative work that benefits society at large, but they need stability and support. This recent debacle contributes to science in the UK looking more uncertain and unattractive. The UK used to be very good at attracting young and talented students and scholarship holders, as well as older researchers and professors. It was good for the economy, and for the social and intellectual life of the country.
But I feel that is changing. The UK is no longer an attractive place. I know that far fewer EU-based researchers have chosen to move their work and funding here in recent years. If the policy does not change, I expect it to continue. I know a lot of people here have taken a very British attitude, thinking they’ll just make it. Some have told me that it will be fine because I will have my grant money replaced or, as an established researcher, I can get another grant. But that’s not the point. I worry about the position of British science in the world and what will happen in the future for young scientists.
I like this country. Came here from Europe in 2013 and stayed. I am grateful to do my job here and have always felt welcome. In fact, I never really felt like an immigrant. But I’m afraid someone will make the same decision today. Things are much less certain.