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Brexit and Research: “A great deal of uncertainty”



On Friday, 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom becomes the first country to leave the European Union. Even as the exit day arrives, much uncertainty remains, including for scientists. We speak to Phillip Dale – a British scientist in Luxembourg – and Raphaël Le Brun, a Luxembourgish PhD candidate in the United Kingdom.

Phillip Dale, Associate professor at the University of Luxembourg

Phillip Dale, you are a British national and Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg since 2008. What are the consequences of Brexit for your research?

Phillip Dale works on photovoltaics at the University of Luxembourg – he came to Luxembourg in 2008 as the first ever FNR ATTRACT Fellow

“Hopefully none! Currently, I have no funded projects with anyone in the UK, although I still keep in touch, have hosted a couple of students, and had a few joint papers together in the last years. Recently, I have just written a couple of grant proposals with UK groups, at the bi-national level, and as part of a larger European H2020 grant level. The FNR and the Research Council of the United Kingdom have a bi-national agreement to fund joint projects, and I hope this stays in place.

“Besides research, I am an international advisor to the UK’s centre for doctoral training in photovoltaics, and also offer training places to another UK doctoral school in the UK, and I will honour my commitments to them.”

Do you think collaboration with colleagues in the UK will be more difficult in the future?

“Scientists are generally an obstinate, friendly, and internationally outward looking group. They are never happier than discussing with international colleagues. Therefore, collaborations will continue.

“The level of collaboration will simply depend on the funding situation. I suspect that on both sides there will be an interest to keep funding joint projects as it is a way to keep international relations open, and to maintain international status.”

Being a British citizen, what are the consequences of Brexit for you on a personal level?

“Honestly, I don’t know. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about what it all means. After the initial Brexit vote, I must say that I was acutely disappointed with the outcome. I could not understand why Britain had voted to leave the EU. None of my friends had voted to leave the EU.

“This means that I don’t know much about my own country. You often hear of on-line “bubbles” where only like-minded views are shared and heard, but actually your own friendship group can also be a “bubble”. Even now, it is hard to understand what really happened.

“From my own personal view point, perhaps the seeds of the Brexit were already sewn a long time ago. I remember growing up, and Europe was never really discussed, and all the news articles I remember reading were negatively orientated. In other words, the benefits of Europe were never convincingly reasoned in the popular public news for many years.”

Were there any positive consequences?

“After the vote, I decided to try to become a Luxembourgish citizen. I spent a couple of years learning the language, with a bit of help from my family, some friends, and a couple of colleagues. Since I don’t have to use it on a daily basis, it can be quite hard to find people to practice with.

“I felt quite nervous going through the tests, it was just like being a student again. Especially for the living in Luxembourg test, where they use the same educational software as I use to administer tests to my students! Most other people taking the test finished after 30 minutes…but I was still there 20 minutes later, the last to leave.

Luckily I passed all the exams and after waiting 8 months I became a Luxembourgish citizen. So Brexit had the benefit of integrating me better into society. It is nice to be able to speak in Luxembourgish with people, and I see that they appreciate it.”

What are the main uncertainties for you?

“I hope that in reality very little will actually change. As long as my family and I are free to travel to see each other, everything else will be manageable I guess. Ironically, the only real change is likely to be an increase in “friction”, more forms and bureaucracy, and more expense.  Most of the things that the European Union removed. Also, it would be nice to know that the few British foods that I enjoy, would still be available.”

About Phillip Dale

In 2008, British national Phillip Dale arrived in Luxembourg as the first ever FNR ATTRACT Fellow, setting up his energy materials ( group at the University of Luxembourg. His research tries to develop high quality semiconductors at low cost, which would ultimately bring down the cost of solar cells.

Find out more about Phillip Dale in our interview ‘FNR ATTRACT Fellows – the people behind the science

Raphaël Le Brun, PhD candidate at the University of Sussex (United Kingdom)

Raphaël, you are a Luxembourg citizen currently doing your PhD on quantum computers at the University of Sussex in the UK. What are the consequences and uncertainties of Brexit for you and your research?

Raphaël Le Brun is a PhD candidate working in quantum computing

“Well the key word in that question is ‘uncertainty’. Since the referendum in 2016, it’s been a slow process and people have gotten quite confused about what is going to happen.

“For me personally, the big question was: Will I be able to study and get a job in the UK? Fortunately, that question has been answered with the ‘settlement scheme’. Since I have been in the UK for 5 years, I have a fully settled status, which means that as an EU citizen, I will keep the same rights as UK citizens, including access to healthcare, education and jobs. I won’t need a visa whatever happens.  So from a legal point of view, I won’t be too affected.

“What is perhaps going to be more difficult for me to handle is the mental state. It may be harder for me to work in a country that rejected the EU, which is a core value to my identity. Currently, I feel very much at home in the UK. I live in Brighton, which is a very progressive and open city, and I work at the University, which is a very liberal place. However, that may be different in other places in the UK or if you talk to your neighbour. All of a sudden, you may feel more like a 2nd class citizen.”

What about the potential impact for your research and your career as a researcher?

“Fortunately, researchers are quite precious to the UK, so I think efforts will be made to keep EU researchers in the UK as much as possible. But again, there is a lot of uncertainty what will happen after the transition period, whether the UK will have access to the same funding etc.

“That will of course impact my future professionally. I want to work in a country whose economy values research. If that is no longer the case, I would rather return to the EU.”

Any other thoughts on Brexit?

“What I personally find unfair, is that people who arrived later in the UK will have to apply to receive the same status through the pre-settlement scheme. Also, I am luckily nearing the completion of my PhD, but if I was a Masters student, thinking to do a PhD in the UK, I would be a bit scared. Things will remain the same during the 1-year transition period, but for example there is uncertainty what will happen to tuition fees afterwards. Nobody knows if EU students will after the transition period fall into the same category as Overseas students, who pay tuition fees of around 20,000 GBP per year!”

About Raphaël

Raphaël Le Brun is currently a Graduate Student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex in Brighton. During his AFR-funded PhD, he aims to develop an experimental framework for quantum computing that is scalable. This will allow future quantum computers to maintain the large number of Qubits necessary for universal quantum calculations.

Find out more about Raphaël in our feature Spotlight on Young Researchers