An interview with Professor Jeff Forshaw of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester
Professor Jeffrey Forshaw is a British particle physicist who since 2004 has been a Professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. He has co-authored five books including, with Professor Brian Cox, the best selling popular science books The Quantum Universe, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos and Why Does E=mc2? He very kindly agreed to be interviewed by Manchester For Europe on the subject of scientific research and the EU.
MCR4EU: In 2016, 16% of the UK based research community and 14% of PhD students were EU nationals. What effect will leaving the EU, the subsequent need for visas and restriction on the freedom of movement have on our research community?
JF: People will go elsewhere, is what will happen, and as a result, we risk losing an edge in what is essentially the Premier League in academia. Our universities are amongst the best in the world and we compete for the best people in the world. Any kind of obstruction, whether it’s taking grants away or restricting freedom of movement, is going to have an effect. It might be small here and there but the net effect is going to be that we lose that competitive edge. I have direct experience of that, with somebody who wanted to apply for a European Research Council grant to come and work in Manchester. These grants are worth a lot of money, they get young academics started on their careers. This researcher wanted to come to Manchester, but that was before Brexit, and he’s now applying to a university in Germany – a slight push and people will go to places like Heidelberg, Berkeley or Princeton. They’ll chose those places over the British Universities. The whole thing disproportionately affects the top universities because those are the institutions that are in the market for the very best people in the world. The government has to step in and recognise that this is a real threat and do something to mitigate it.
MCR4EU: Data from UNESCO suggests that 62% of the UK’s research outputs are now international collaborations. What impact will the reduction of EU nationals in the research community have on this? Are UK based researchers more likely to be left out of the loop?
JF: Yes, UK researchers are likely to be left out of grants proposals. It may actually be impossible for UK universities to be involved in grant applications if they’re European grants. It can’t be overstated, the role in which international collaboration works in universities. There are no boundaries really, in fact it’s completely international. My immediate circle of colleagues that I work with at the Particle Physics group at the University of Manchester includes a Pole, an American, an Indian, a Russian, a Greek and a German and one Brit. We are members of big international collaborations and are very successful at getting research grants through the European Research Council. If that grant money disappeared, it would be an absolute disaster for universities, so I think the government must recognise that. It has to step in and make sure that international collaboration can continue without being hampered. International collaboration and the grants associated with that are completely the centre, the heart, of the way that universities operate.
MCR4EU: EU funds currently make up around 17% of the total science research grants in UK universities. How will leaving the EU affect access to funding for research? Are there any research areas that will be particularly affected?
JF: I think pretty much all research areas are going to be badly affected. The universities sector is one of the areas where the UK absolutely leads the world still. It’s what we can still offer to places like China; the fact that we’re experts in really difficult areas, stuff that requires a lot of expertise. The government needs to be seen to be supporting collaboration with world leading institutions. For example in Particle Physics, CERN is a fantastic example of international collaboration. [Editor's note: although often thought of as being a Swiss organisation, parts of CERN are geographically in France and Italy, and it also receives considerable funding from EU science programmes as well as the organisation itself being comprised of 22 full member countries of which currently only Switzerland, Norway and Israel are not EU members] At the moment, the grants from the European Research Council support UK researchers probably more than any other source of income. If they go away and are not replaced, it would be totally devastating for British research. Even the very threat of it creates uncertainty. People will be avoiding UK institutes - it’s too risky. Would there be some kind of prejudice against getting a grant if it was with a UK institution? Taking money away because people can’t apply for grants is a tangible, harmful thing. The government better step in really quick and make it clear about how it’s going to replace all of that funding with something really positive as harm’s being done now, even before we’ve left the EU. Brilliant scientists are deciding to go to places where they’re going to set up their careers. The best people in the world can pick where they go and work. If they feel that the UK is isolating itself and they want to be part of the international community they will go elsewhere.
MCR4EU: What knock on effect do you think this will have on innovation in the wider community?
JF: There are various statistics that define the Science base and what role that has in GDP, never mind the universities sector more generally. It’s a huge factor, it really underpins our economy – the bit of our economy that’s crucial for the future. It’s the one bit of the economy where we have an edge, where we lead. In a lot of areas we’re being beaten by other places now in an economic sense, but not in training up people at the highest level. If that gets damaged, essentially you’re damaging the most important thing that underpins the UK economy. You have the best minds in a university, and those people attract and train the people that then go on into industry. All of the undergraduates and PhD students come here to be trained up to be the best academics in the world. That’s why there are lots of Chinese students coming to Manchester – because they know they’ll get really high quality education. So it’s not just at the top end, it’ll have an impact further down. The government should be announcing that it’s absolutely committed to maintaining the quality in the universities. They should step in and say that they are going to replace European Research Council grants with British grants that are very similar and can be applied for by people from the European Union, so we essentially put our own scheme into place.
MCR4EU: Is it likely the UK government will invest in a grants programme to cover the funding gap given competition for additional funding, for example from the NHS and councils?
JF: I fear that it won’t happen at the level that it should. I also fear that it won’t happen for a while as they’ll be busy negotiating and time will pass and in the meantime opportunities will be lost – people will be going elsewhere. When you’re in competition with the best universities in the world, that could have a major impact in that you just can’t get the best people any more.