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Case study 01

Helen Snaith

British Oceanographic Data Centre

Picture of ocean

Dr Helen Snaith, Prospect branch chair at the Natural Environment Research Council, says leaving the EU is likely to make it even harder to secure funding and recruit specialist staff.

As a data scientist at the British Oceanographic Data Centre – based at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton – Dr Helen Snaith understands better than most the global nature of climate sciences, the range of skills needed to do the job and how much money it takes.

“Most of the data we look after has been collected on research cruises, which are incredibly expensive. It costs a lot of money to send a fully-crewed ship out to the Southern Ocean or the Atlantic,” she says.

The data collected by the BODC, such as sea level, sea surface temperature and full-depth temperature measurements, are distributed across the research and wider marine community.

“We want to get the best use of that data so that people can reuse it within other projects. The records are free for people to access and can also be used for commercial purposes.

“From a climate science point of view, some of our most important records are some of our oldest because they tell us how things have changed. We have records going back decades.”

It is because of the BODC’s data that we know the oceans have been getting warmer – and by how much – over the last half a century, she adds.

Working across international boundaries and with international colleagues is intrinsic to the National Oceanography Centre, which is the BODC’s parent body.

“The government is increasingly setting research targets that it describes as ‘ODA-able’ – meaning that they qualify for overseas development assistance.”

This might mean working with countries such as India or Indonesia on coastal defence programmes, says Helen.

“The nature of what NOC does relies on expertise that is spread across the globe and we have to ensure that continues after Brexit… We rely on very specialist skills. Globally, there are not a lot of people who can do this work.

“We have researchers from across the world, particularly across the EU. If you walk around NOC, probably no more than 50% of the researchers are British. On my corridor, we have Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, German, Slovakian and Chinese staff.”

Even now, before Britain has formally left the EU, the NOC regularly has to make special cases to recruit scientists with the necessary skills from outside Europe.

“Brexit means we’ll have to jump through more hoops and it certainly won’t make things any easier.”

The NOC and other research bodies are now facing a period of uncertainty and possible disruption to their work through no real fault of their own, says Helen.

“We know that the funding we have for current projects is secure. We have been told we should continue to bid into the existing programmes for at least the next two years before we leave the EU.”

As Helen points out, the overwhelming majority of people in science and academia voted in favour of staying within the EU. “Now, everyone is wondering where we go from here.”