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What does Brexit mean for scientific collaboration?

So, the UK has decided it is best to ‘go it alone.’ This decision has made me more profoundly sad than I have ever been about a vote in the UK.

After the initial shock last Friday of the decision to leave the EU, this week we’ve all begun to reflect on what the vote will mean to our individual lives, our work, our families and our futures.

For me, choosing to reject collaboration with our partners in the EU is the very antithesis of what characterizes my own line of work: leading a charity which funds international cancer research projects.

At Worldwide Cancer Research we have spent 36 years funding some of the world’s best research paying no heed to national borders whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if a scientist is based in Barcelona or Zurich – what we care about is their research idea and how it might transform the way we treat, diagnose or prevent cancer in future.


What we do as a charity will never change despite the vote to leave. In fact, in light of the referendum, the onus is now upon us to continue to demonstrate the value of preserving and pursuing international collaboration, especially when it comes to tackling medical problems such as cancer.

I doubt even the most strident ‘remain’ voter thinks the EU is a perfect machine unerringly cranking out legislation that creates prosperity and happiness for all. But to feel that a large section of my country has knowingly turned its back on that collaborative approach, the seeking of shared aspirations and common ground and mutual benefit, truly pains me.

Among a plethora of strongly-worded responses from major players in the scientific community I have read this week, one in particular stood out to me. It was from Sir Paul Nurse, the Director of the Francis Crick Institute. He said:

“Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration. British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive.”

As he points out, there are too many problems facing the world that are too big for isolationist approaches and cancer is definitely one of them.

I believe that at its best, science is an outward-looking, open-minded meritocracy where displays of ingenuity, clear thinking and analytical rigour are celebrated, whichever lab or scientist they happen to belong to.

‘But you’re a scientist’, you might be thinking, so naturally I’m going to try and convince you that research represents a shining example of international partnership. Let me (as is always scientifically prudent) present some evidence.

A microcosm of European collaboration is seen on our charity’s scientific committee where 24 cancer experts from 8 countries determine where our donors’ precious money when awarding project grants.

Experiencing that debate for the ninth time myself only a few months ago in a hotel conference room in Edinburgh, I was struck by how disagreements as to the value of a certain experiment or the significance of a certain scientific flaw are always aired openly and sometimes robustly, but never in an angry or personal way.


Opinions from around the table are actively sought and discussed, sometimes at length, until a conclusion is reached that the majority agrees is the best outcome for cancer research and those that have given us money to support it. Nobody stomps their foot and leaves in a sulk.

The reward of collaboration is better than the satisfaction of an individual getting their own way, and the research is better for it.

For me, I can only hope that this vote does not signify a large part of my fellow Brits beginning to reject the connections between us. To give us all the best chance of the brightest future, we must marshal all the imagination and creativity we can get. All that remains is to find a way within the new political framework to preserve the strength of UK science and technology, which has always punched well above its weight.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK Politics 

Chief Executive at Worldwide Cancer Research

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