Professor Dr Carsten Welsch
Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, a leading expert in accelerator science and technology, outlines his concerns about the potential damage that could result from the UK leaving the EU.
Students and researchers are extremely concerned about the implications of Brexit for the international positioning of UK science, according to Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an expert in accelerator science and technology.
Carsten, head of the physics department and leader of the QUASAR group based at Liverpool University, was speaking to Prospect in a personal capacity about the potential impact of the EU referendum result on this area of science.
Several of the projects he heads come under the auspices of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, where Prospect has more than 400 members across five UK sites.
The QUASAR group’s research falls under the umbrella of the Cockcroft Institute, an international centre of excellence in accelerator science and technology, part of SciTech Daresbury (Cheshire).
Carsten has been a partner in many national and international research projects and has co-ordinated nine EU projects to date.
In particular, for many years he has initiated and led several large-scale European training networks to educate the next generation of accelerator scientists and technologists.
But he warns that since the referendum result, students, as well as postdoctoral researchers considering coming to the UK have been taking a more negative view. Furthermore, existing researchers are now thinking of leaving the UK, which would result in a loss of excellent talent.
“Uncertainty over funding is already having a negative impact on European initiatives,” he says.
“Funding proposals not only have to make the scientific case, but also to set out a vision for development of the work beyond the lifetime of the particular grant.
“Nobody can say what the relationship between the UK and the EU – as well as between the UK and other countries – will be in five years’ time and this makes writing about the long-term vision and impact almost impossible.”
Co-ordinators of project proposals are expected to take responsibility for developing such a vision but it has proved difficult since the referendum result, especially in highly competitive research fields.
“The truth is that scientists in the UK can’t currently do this. Therefore, proposals are much less likely to be led by UK institutions and scientists post-referendum,” says Carsten.
Yet European funding has been crucial for the international positioning of his own research, which has led to more than €25m in funding from the EU.
“In some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU,” says Carsten. “It is not clear whether it will be possible to secure alternative funding at this level.
“Furthermore, accelerator science depends on international collaboration – no single institute dominates and many countries need to work together in order to push the current science and technology limits. In this regard the prognosis for the UK is gloomy.”
The UK is currently a member of a large number of international collaborations. These include CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – where physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe.
They use the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature.
The instruments used at CERN are purpose-built particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before the beams are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.
Founded in 1954, the CERN laboratory is based on the French-Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 22 member states, including some from outside the EU.
Carsten fears that in the light of the Brexit vote, Britain might not only position itself differently to the EU, but might also reconsider some of its long-standing international partnerships.
On the question of international mobility, he is surprised that the government has not made a more clear commitment to keeping exceptional talent in the UK.
“The feeling is that the government is using people as bargaining chips in their negotiations with the EU,” he says. He believes the government needs to make a clear statement that protects the rights of EU nationals throughout the negotiating process.
It is vital that the UK retains access to funding from the large EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and its successor. Horizon 2020 has nearly €80bn of funding available over seven years (2014-2020) – money that will also attract private investment. At the minimum the UK should become an associate partner in this programme, Carsten believes.
Finally, everyone needs to feel safe and secure where they work, he says in response to the reported increases in racist attacks and unwelcoming attitudes to foreign nationals since the referendum result. This could drive people away from the UK, he warns, leading to a great loss of talent.
Ultimately, he adds: “Scientists need to know that access to funding will be available for them to realise their research vision. The UK has been a fantastic place to do world-class research and the government now needs to ensure that this is not put at risk in the upcoming negotiations with the EU.”