Graphene in Cambridge post-Brexit

Given the omnishambles of current English politics, a cynic might argue that Brexit is now little more than a hypothetical scenario, and an utterly absurd one at that. Still, for the sake of an interesting narrative, let us be generous to the Brexiteers and assume that England’s departure from the EU proceeds as unplanned.

My journalist friend and former Graphene Flagship colleague Paul Kirkley writes a regular column for the weekly newspaper Cambridge Independent (aka the Super Soaraway Cantabrigian). The subject of his latest article is an old favourite – Brexit.

Paul asked for my views on the likely effect of Brexit on graphene research and development in Cambridge. The Cambridge Graphene Centre, where my fellow hack and I worked for a time as external communication specialists funded by the European Union through the flagship, is a centre of international renown for fundamental science and engineering research into two-dimensional materials, of which graphene is the best known.

I was happy to give Paul my (ahem!) expert opinion on the potential impact of Brexit on Cambridge and the flagship, and to be quoted as a physicist turned science journalist with many years of experience in EU science, both as a grant applicant and project evaluator. Paul’s column on Brexit is as I write unavailable online, so I am repeating here what I said to Paul, and from which he quoted in the Cambridge Independent print edition.

The UK plays a leading role in many of the EU’s Horizon 2020 science and engineering projects, of which the Graphene Flagship is one. Its elevated status in the flagship derives from being both a core contributing member of the EU, and the strength of 2d materials research in the British Isles.

It is not necessary for contributing countries in the flagship and other Horizon 2020 programmes to be EU members, but non-EU states are either “Associated” to Horizon 2020, or alternatively may receive discretionary funding. Either way, non-EU states play no part in Horizon 2020 management and policymaking.

It is possible but by no means certain that a post-Brexit UK would be welcome as an associate member of Horizon 2020 and subsequent EU research programmes. It is important to stress that the decision may be as much geopolitical as one based rationally on the strengths of UK research. If the UK continues to be part of Horizon 2020 projects, whether as an associate member or otherwise, its role would necessarily be diminished, with a dramatic loss of strategic influence.

Whether or not the UK continues to be part of the Graphene Flagship, central government will most likely continue to support graphene research. It is a question of political will that certainly existed within Westminster circles during the Cameron administration. However, with former chancellor George Osbourne cast into Tory exile, the current strength of this political will is uncertain.

The question in my mind is, where will the UK graphene money go? We should be open to the possibility that most of it will end up in Manchester, that being the home of the National Graphene Institute, and the two Nobel laureates who first isolated the ‘wonder material’. Much of it comes down to politics and personalities, and in that respect Cambridge is handicapped by its lack of public profile in this area of science and engineering.

The future of Cambridge in 2d materials development will depend on the UK research councils, and the decision makers within the University of Cambridge. Again, it is largely a question of political will, or at least will be so once the detail of the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and EU is better understood. As it stands, the Cambridge Graphene Centre is an international hothouse of materials science talent, with contract research and academic staff drawn from various EU countries and further afield.

An end to EU freedom of movement would have a negative impact on the Cambridge Graphene Centre, but I can see it adapting over the medium to long term. After all, the university carries a lot of weight in official circles, and appears to have little difficulty in getting work permits for contract research staff from Asian countries. A more immediate problem may be a debilitating outflow of talent due to a perception if not reality that England is no longer such an attractive environment for European scientists and engineers.

It is but a few months since the Article 50 withdrawal notification, and already Brexit is turning into an almighty political and economic mess. So much so, in fact, that I can see EU withdrawal being rescinded in one way or another. Political possibilities aside, we must proceed on the basis that Brexit will happen, and plan ahead in a responsible manner, based on the evidence to hand.

However, evidence-based policymaking is impossible without hard information on the UK’s post-Brexit research regime. At present we haven’t a clue, and the result is wailing and gnashing of teeth within university common rooms and research council offices. Time will tell, of course, but this universal truth is of little comfort to those responsible for managing the here and now.

We live in interesting times.