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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Dame Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, Master of Churchill College and a member of the ERC’s Scientific Council. She will give the Sir Hermann Bondi lecture on 23rd October on UK research in troubled political times.


What impact would 'hard' Brexit have on UK research [and on European research projects]? How could if affect your discipline?

Professor Dame Athene Donald: If hard Brexit means no access to Horizon2020 and other EU funds plus severe limitations on EU citizens able to work in the UK (and UK workers to work in the EU), the impact will be huge. Research - in any discipline - relies on science being international, with easy mobility of researchers. That is going to get much harder. Universities will lose (and are already losing) many of their EU staff already here and applications are likely to  plummet. The consequential damage for families should also not be underestimated.

The biggest challenge for HEIs currently is the uncertainty on so many fronts. Be it in student funding, hiring of new staff or research funding, it feels as if everything has been thrown in the air. A University such as Cambridge may feel reasonably confident that, whatever the  mix of its international student population may change, we will still be able to attract many of the brightest minds. It is harder to be confident that we will attract postdocs and faculty from our current EU partners when their whole livelihoods may be radically affected by government policy. That EU citizens' rights in the UK remain unclear  is causing unnecessary but very substantial and understandable anxiety. Access to future EU science funding through Horizon2020 and future Framework programmes (FP9) is uncertain.

Depending on the details of the Brexit deal and the extent of any additional money that the Government is willing to put on the table to fund future science, access to these funds may or may not be straightforward. Every academic is affected to a greater or lesser degree by these unknowns.


Do you think the damage has to some extent already been done in terms of the UK's reputation?

AD: Not yet in research, although many in Brussels look at the Government and the decision of the referendum with incredulity and dismay. But our reputation can only fall if everything that has made research in the UK thrive is dismantled.


Do you know of researchers who are already leaving as a result of the vote?

AD: Not personally, although I know those who are thinking hard about their futures.


Do you know researchers who have lost their place on European research projects?

AD: Again, I have only heard this anecdotally. Undoubtedly on the large consortia that fall under parts of Horizon2020, UK members are no longer felt to be 'safe'. It is relatively easy to work out when a former UK lead is downgraded; it is harder to tell if UK researchers are simply not being asked to join such a consortium.


Do you think the impact on research was fully debated in the lead-up to the vote? Could universities have done more?

AD: I don't think the majority of the electorate would have cared very much about research when it came to making up their minds. I feel, where researchers did put the case they put it too much in terms of how the loss of research cash might impact directly on them and their research, rather than what the loss  might mean more broadly for the economy and

well-being of the population. Discussing free mobility of researchers probably would have been of little interest to those frightened about immigrants and their jobs, even though that debate is not really relevant to the research community. The fundamental problem remains the disconnect between certain section of the population and 'experts' and the 'elite'.


Do universities need to do more in the way of public engagement about their research?

AD: Universities do a great deal of public engagement, but sometimes I worry they are preaching to the converted. Science Festivals, for instance, only reach those who want to learn about science. We need to find new ways to reach to the general member of the public who doesn't yet know they should be interested. Going into schools is, of course, another very powerful way, but in that case it is usually directed at a specific topic rather than the overall importance of research, although it can - and should - excite children about the potential of research.


Which disciplines do you think will be most affected by Brexit?

AD: Science disciplines which rely on teams of international researchers are likely to more affected than arts, humanities and social sciences where individuals do more. Nevertheless, everyone will be affected to a significant extent.


How can UK universities continue to attract the most innovative researchers to collaborate on research projects post-Brexit?

AD: The answer to that depends on the specifics of any deal. We have always attracted researchers from around the world, so we know we can do it, but it will cost more and be less easy to achieve.