One of the most inexplicable things about Brexit is that people were prepared to vote against their own interests. In terms of money, travel, education, there are so many things about being in the EU that are great for us Brits, which we’re going to lose out on when we leave.
But one thing that’s been pretty much overlooked is how much science is going to be affected.
So I called up Sir Fraser Stoddart, one of Britain’s best scientists, who won a Nobel Prize last year for ‘the design and synthesis of molecular machines’ (which we obviously all understand) to find out his thoughts. After international collaborations with scientists across Europe and the rest of the world, he now teaches at Northwestern University in the United States.
To be blunt, he thinks we’re all screwed. In fact, he got so emotional during our conversation that he seemed to be on the verge of tears. Sir Fraser doesn’t hold any punches: he thinks the Leave vote is nothing but ‘crass stupidity,’ he calls British politicians ‘incompetent and self-serving’ and hopes Brexit will never happen.
He even says that without European collaboration, he wouldn’t have been able to do the work that won him the Nobel Prize.
Q. How do you think science is going to be affected by Brexit?
“Quite frankly, science in the UK is going to suffer big time after Brexit – especially in terms of money. What you need to realise is that science is global. In my lab I have 30-40 people from all nationalities getting on extremely well which is absolute magic.
“Why I’m, you know, devastated by Brexit is that when I was a professor in Sheffield in the 1980s, I think I can claim to be one of the first scientists in the UK who brought in people from the European continent.
“The old guard professors at the time scoffed at me and said, ‘Fraser don’t you realise our students are better?’ This was poppycock. When I brought in people from the University of Messina, from Madrid and from Milano it was transformative. They were the basis for the push that won me a Nobel Prize.
“I know I’m getting emotional about it but this is just crass stupidity on the part of whoever is orchestrating this event in the UK.”
Q. So without the EU, do you think your work might not have happened?
“Yes. I was struggling a little with a British mentality of, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t want to be pushed. I’m quite happy doing this’. And as soon as these people arrived from southern parts of Europe into the middle of a very cold, frosty and sometimes snowy Sheffield it was transformative. They made that move with the attempt of getting on and doing things.”
Q. Do you think future scientific breakthroughs could potentially go undiscovered because of Brexit?
“Well the point is, science is global. Science will survive this but people will move. I know of senior people in the UK who are already staking out their new laboratories in other countries. As another senior British scientist put it, it’s like taking a sports team like the Chicago Cubs and saying, ‘You can’t hire anybody from the rest of the United States, you can only hire people from Illinois’. It would be the death of the club.
“So however you look at this, it’s a people thing and this is what some of the most incompetent and self-serving politicians that the country has ever seen don’t seem to understand. I hope that sense prevails and that they cannot initiate this crime against Britain.”
Q. So you hope Brexit won’t happen?
“Very much so, yes! I think they’re in a pickle. It was never conceived in a very clever or competent way. It was a whole set of lies to begin with and it’s going to come back to haunt them. If they go for this sort of hard Brexit of walking away then I think that will probably backfire - big time.
“Or if the worst happens I think that in a decade’s time a new political order will come to bear and it will bring a big change and perhaps the country will be led back in by some sensible people. That would be my hope. In the fullness of time, Britain cannot escape being part of Europe.”