Racist, xenophobic and anti-intellectual: Academics threaten to leave Brexit Britain

Pro-Brexit science campaign group insists the British research community is not facing 'Armageddon' as the UK will still have access to European funding

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 13 July 2016 12:12 BST
UK universities have proved highly successful at attracting the best and brightest academics from the rest of the European Union
UK universities have proved highly successful at attracting the best and brightest academics from the rest of the European Union (Getty Images)

A rising tide of xenophobia and anti-intellectualism in the UK following the Brexit vote is making academics think of leaving the country and discouraging others from applying for jobs here, pro-EU scientists have warned.

Mike Galsworthy, the programme director of Scientists for EU, has been contacted by about 350 scientists since the referendum, almost all of whom expressed concerns about the future of British scientific research.

The EU provides about £1bn a year in funding for science in the UK, which has been extremely successful in both winning grants and attracting the brightest talents from the continent.

It is possible for non-EU countries to access the grants if they pay a contribution based on their GDP, but the UK will have to negotiate a new deal in order to do this.

This is so important to British science that the pro-Brexit Scientists for Britain refused to even contemplate not being able to access the funding, suggesting that this would be “Armageddon” for the research community.

May's Brexit vision

Of the academics who contacted Dr Galsworthy, 18 per cent said they were now planning to leave the UK and 11 per cent said they were concerned about the surge in xenophobia and racism.

The number of hate crimes officially recorded by police during the last two weeks of June was 42 per cent higher than the same period last year. And there have been numerous media reports of people being racially abused and told to “go back to your country”.

Professor Franck Duvell, who studies migration at Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society, said: “After years of anti-EU and anti-immigration discourse and now the outcome of the referendum we, my wife and I, have had enough.

“Unless the referendum is overturned by some parliamentary decision, we’d prefer leaving and watch out for opportunities in the EU.

“We realise that after over 18 years in the UK this is easier said than done, which puts us in a pretty awkward position.”

Professor Duvell is a German citizen and his wife is an economist from non-EU member Ukraine, which means their situation is more complicated because they currently benefit from EU mobility rules that may not apply in post-Brexit Britain.

“My wife is particularly cynical, feeling that in Ukraine people were killed for wanting to be more European, whereas in the UK people threw this privilege out of the window.”

An American academic who receives a large European research grant told The Independent said she was concerned she would not be able to recruit and retain the best staff from across Europe and was thinking about relocating to the another EU country.

She said friends of her family in England had complained to her about immigrants but then told her “you’re different” when she pointed out she was one herself.

“Because I’m white and I speak English? That’s racist,” she said. “That attitude is ramping up.

“And I guess anti-intellectualism [is another reason]. We had [Tory Justice Secretary] Michael Gove’s quote that ‘we’ve had enough of experts’.

“People seem to be really pissed off and kind of just voting with their hearts rather than their brains.

“This reminds me so much of what’s happening in America. They liked George W Bush because he spoke simply and they didn’t like ‘Professor Obama’ – that’s like an insult.

“I thought Britain was better than that. The Brexit vote is now this really horrible outcome of all this ill-will towards government.”

She said it had been “heart-breaking” when the council area where she lives voted for Brexit.

Dr Galsworthy told The Independent that concern about “xenophobia and racism” was a theme of the comments he had been sent.

And he said that Mr Gove’s comment about experts had “really resonated within the science community” and polls had also shown that Leave voters did not trust scientists or ‘experts’.

“There’s this big culture of distrust towards the authorities and people who know their areas …. We are used to being trusted,” he said.

“On our Facebook page, there was a lot of cynicism about ‘vested interests, you’re all bought out by the EU, shame on you for thinking of yourself before British democracy.’”

This “cultural climate”, he said, was making academics think “is Britain really a place I want to be in, if this is the attitude towards science”.

David Banks, of Scientists for Britain, insisted there was no cause for concern among scientists in the UK, saying they would still have access European research grants.

“The situation with Horizons 2020 and European Research Council [funding schemes] is that about a third of the countries that participate in both of them are non-EU. For that reason the UK has every propensity to continue,” he said. “There doesn’t even need to be a break of service.”

He refused to even contemplate what would happen if the UK did not have access to the grants.

“I just find it so unlikely that it doesn’t warrant entertaining the notion because what will happen then is people will construct the headline ‘Brexit scientist says there will be Armageddon’. I just cannot entertain that premise, it’s so far-fetched,” he said.

He attacked the pro-EU supporters for expressing their fears for the future of British science in the event of Brexit.

“They need to stop some of this stuff about uncertainty because it isn’t uncertainty,” Mr Banks said.

“The whole framing of the future as if it’s some black hole is simply a continuation of the campaign by people who simply cannot get their head around the result [of the referendum].”

He argued that EU drug regulations – which he said were imposed after lobbying by multi-national pharmaceutical companies – had hampered research, put small British firms out of business, delayed the introduction of some cancer drugs and even cost people’s lives.

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