Physicists in Scotland discuss Brexit at IOP meeting in Edinburgh

12 October 2016

Physicists from across Scotland discussed the implications of Brexit for the nation at a town meeting in Edinburgh on 5 October.

Physicists in Scotland discuss Brexit at IOP meeting in Edinburgh

The event at the National Museum of Scotland attracted more than 30 physicists to hear keynote speeches and take part in discussions on the effect of Brexit on people, collaborations, access, funding and regulation in Scotland, among other issues.

It was organised by the IOP in Scotland, and the IOP’s head of policy, Alex Connor, spoke about the implications of Brexit for physics as well as the work that the Institute is doing to ensure that the voice of the physics community is heard in the coming debates. He pointed out that 12% of undergraduates, 27% of postgraduate students and 28% of academics in Scotland are currently from the EU (beyond the UK), which showed the importance of the issue of free movement of people in the coming negotiations.

As he did at a similar meeting in Northern Ireland, Connor underlined the importance of having a positive vision and taking the opportunity to articulate what the community wants for physics rather than revisiting the referendum debate. He stressed that he was there to listen to what physicists in Scotland saw as the vital issues from their perspective.

There were also keynote speeches from Dame Anne Glover, vice-principal external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen, and from Ross Martin, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

Professor Glover was formerly chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission and was the first chief scientific adviser for Scotland. She said it was important to stay active and engaged in the debate and to start a dialogue with contacts in the EU to emphasise that we wished to stay connected.

It was also important to lobby Whitehall politicians, MEPs and members of the Scottish Parliament for scientists to retain full access to their collaborative partners and funding in the EU and for science to be one of the top three issues on the negotiating table with the other EU institutions, she argued. However, politicians would not take notice unless their constituents recognised the value of science, and this meant that scientists had to communicate its value to the person in the street.

Several people mentioned the need to marshal evidence about the importance of physics to the Scottish economy, such as that contained in the IOP’s report The Importance of Physics to the Scottish Economy, an updated version of which is about to be published.

Martin said that for many people in the UK, the economy was stagnant, and there was a need to work on improving productivity, innovation and internationalisation. Half of exports in Scotland were driven by just 50 companies, he said, arguing that there had to be a massive expansion of internationalisation. While there was considerable uncertainty surrounding Brexit, this could be turned to advantage because we were in uncharted waters and anything could be done to navigate them.

Potential problems with paying for visas and uncertainty around access to Horizon 2020 funding were mentioned during discussions, as well as a mooted promise by at least one university in Scotland to pay the fees of current EU students after the UK exits the EU to allow them to finish their courses.

IOP policy officer, Dan Lee, was also at the event. He said later: “Physics and physicists make a vital contribution to the Scottish economy, with physics-based businesses contributing around £8.5bn. It’s crucial that Scotland, and the rest of the UK, are able to build on this.

“We heard at the meeting that physicists from academia and industry have a number of concerns regarding our future relationship with the EU and that these may impact on Scotland’s future economic success. We’re feeding these concerns into our work on Brexit, and we’ll be continuing to engage with our members to understand and communicate their concerns.”

The IOP is welcoming evidence on the impact of Brexit on research now at policy@iop.org and universities and science minister Jo Johnson MP has set up a specific email address for such evidence at research@bis.gsi.gov.uk.