Physicists in Northern Ireland debate how to respond to Brexit

30 September 2016

A town meeting for physicists from across Northern Ireland has discussed the implications of Brexit and how the physics community might best respond in the months ahead.

Physicists in Northern Ireland debate how to respond to Brexit

The meeting, held at the Europa Hotel in Belfast on 22 September, was organised by the IOP in Ireland and included input from the Institute’s head of policy, Alex Connor, Dr Stephen Farry – a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and former minister for employment and learning in the Northern Ireland Executive, and Professor Robert Bowman, head of maths and physics at Queen’s University Belfast.

Connor gave some background on how the UK government is implementing Brexit, the work that the IOP is doing to determine the likely effects on physicists and other stakeholders, and the Institute’s role in ensuring that the voice of physicists is heard when the key decisions are debated. He stressed the importance of having a positive vision and using the opportunity to articulate what the community wants for physics in the UK rather than revisiting the referendum debate.

Farry (pictured) focused on the political landscape in Northern Ireland – unique in being the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country and in which citizens can choose whether to have either British or Irish citizenship and passports, or both. He did not want to see a “hard Brexit” and believed it would be better if Northern Ireland, where 56% of votes went to the “remain” side in the referendum, could stay in the EU. A key issue was to speak with a unified voice in their messages to Brussels, he argued.

Bowman spoke of how the EU influences his day-to-day job and how any changes might affect his students and fellow researchers and academics, particularly those who were not born in Northern Ireland. There were unanswered questions about how it would affect travel, whether or not visas would be needed, fees, grants and research applications, he said.

Such uncertainties were also explored in round-table discussions among the 30 physicists from universities and organisations across Northern Ireland who took part in the meeting. Other questions included whether EU standards would be maintained following Brexit or whether the UK would have to create its own; whether the UK should draw inspiration from Norway or Switzerland in framing its relationship with the EU; and whether the money that the UK was currently paying into the EU would be spent on UK science.

IOP Ireland policy adviser, Dr Sheila Gilheany, took part in the meeting. Speaking afterwards, she noted that Science Foundation Ireland has commented that there may well be opportunities for Ireland to attract researchers from the UK who are keen to remain within the EU.

The meeting was part of a series that the IOP is organising to discuss the issues – there are plans for a meeting in Wales and another, Brexit – where next for physics in Scotland, is being held in Edinburgh on 5 October.