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Brexatom delivers first big blow to EU/UK science collaboration

The peremptory announcement that the UK will withdraw from the EU Atomic Energy Community risks a talent drain and leaves unanswered questions over funding for nuclear science and the future of the Joint European Torus

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Nuclear scientists have become the first to face up to the hard realities of what Brexit means for UK/EU research cooperation - and their future careers - following the announcement that Britain is to pull out of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) when it leaves the EU.

The withdrawal will have repercussions for both the UK’s nuclear energy sector and for nuclear research. In particular, the Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, the largest EU research project in the UK, gets €69 million per annum in EU funding. That is about €24 million more than the UK contributes to Europe's nuclear fusion budget.

With no guarantees over future funding or the long-term rights of European nationals now working in the country, researchers are said to be considering their positions.

The uncertainty about future prospects for nuclear research could also prompt UK nationals to leave the field, according to physicist Steven Cowley, president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University and former director of the Culham research centre. “All this political expediency interacts with peoples’ lives on the ground. You will have people thinking about their future,” he said.

Cowley, like other scientists in the field, was completely blindsided by the decision to quit. “Most of us don’t have enough savings to wait for the government to figure all this out. It affects highly mobile people – what’s stopping them going off to get jobs in software or quantum finance, for example?”

The British government said it would leave Euratom, which oversees the peaceful use of nuclear power and co-ordinates nuclear research across the EU, in explanatory notes published alongside a short bill authorising it to trigger Article 50, the formal notification of the country’s intention to withdraw from the EU.

Assuage the disquiet 

Some researchers have already left since the Brexit vote in June, according to Ian Chapman, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford, the home of JET, which is largely funded by the EU.

“We have been able to assuage the disquiet pretty well up to now but last week’s decision has pretty serious implications here, with many of our 1,300 scientists under contracts sustained by the [European] Commission,” said Chapman, who is also chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

His immediate worry is what happens after 2018, when EU project funding is set to expire.

Concerns in the wake of the Euratom announcement mirror those of the British scientists at large. Nothing has technically changed since the referendum, with the UK still a member of the EU, but a vast number of questions remain.

Last August the UK government pledged to underwrite grants for EU projects that go on after the UK leaves the EU. Scientists say they have not been able to confirm if this applies to fusion funding.

“There was no discussion about replacement funding. It’s completely blasé from the government,” Paul Stevenson, senior lecturer at Surrey University’s department of physics, told Science|Business.

Scientists have been highly critical of the government for not stating its intentions to leave the treaty, which could also endanger British participation in the world’s largest fusion experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France.

“It was highly premature,” said Cowley. “It strikes me that the decision has not been properly thought through by anyone in government. The damage in the intervening years, before all this is sorted out, will be large.”

Juan Matthews, a visiting professor in the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University, lives in Abingdon, just 5 km from Culham.

“In the local shopping centre, you can hear not just EU languages but Russian, Japanese and Korean spoken in a community that is dependent to a significant extent on the JET and ITER programmes,” he said. “People here are furious with the short sighted and damaging mistake of including Euratom in the withdrawal bill. We are concerned with not only losing British talent but also international talent.”

A spokeswoman from the UK’s ‘Brexit ministry’ – the Department for Exiting the European Union – did not address the issue of funding, but said the UK wanted to see a continuity of cooperation and standards on nuclear power and research.

“We remain absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety, safeguards and support for the industry. Our aim is clear; we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with the EU,” she said.

Legal consequence of Brexit

Euratom, which sets standards for handling nuclear materials and promotes nuclear safety standards, was formed before the EU in 1957. Although legally separate from the EU, it has the same members and is governed by EU institutions.

While scientists were wrong-footed by the announcement to quit – “How many understand that invoking Article 50 also takes us out of a 60-year-old agreement on nuclear safety and research that pre-dates our EU membership?” asked Mike Galsworthy, head of the Scientists for EU pressure group – the lawyers were not.  

“Logically, leaving EU means leaving Euratom,” said Steve Peers, professor of EU, human rights and world trade law at Essex University. Article 106a of the Euratom treaty states that Article 50 "shall apply to this Treaty", he noted.

To remain in Euratom would leave areas of UK law subject to rules made in Brussels and interpreted in Luxembourg. Prime minister Theresa May has already pledged to take the UK out from under the legal remit of the European Court of Justice.

Despite the considerable political obstacles, Cowley says the situation can be resolved. “In a sense, I’m positive about the outcome of this one,” he said. “Because it would be so bonkers not to re-join – it would totally go against our self-interest.”

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Related subjects: Brexit

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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.