Scientists fear the UK has lost its way because of Brexit, and scientific research could suffer as a result, the head of the UK’s biggest biomedical research lab has warned.
Nobel prize-winner Paul Nurse said scientists were concerned that the UK’s decision to leave the EU was driven by the country becoming less outward-looking.
“The motivation for Brexit seems to be a turning in of the country on itself. Turning away from the rest of the world, not just Europe. And science thrives on the exact opposite,” the former Royal Society president told New Scientist.
“The concerns [in the scientific community] are less to do with money, less to do with the things people talk about, but more to do with a feeling the country has lost its way,” added Nurse, who is now chief executive of London’s Francis Crick Institute.
“Brexit seems to be turning [the UK] in on itself. Science thrives on the exact opposite.”
He said Brexit concerns had not yet harmed the institute’s recruitment of scientists, but he had heard other institutions and universities were having problems.
“If we turn our back on the rest of the world, our world talent will turn its back on us,” he said.
Nurse, one of the country’s most respected scientists, said that trust in science remains strong in an era of fake news. But he voiced concerns over misinformation online, particularly on statins, where he said proven health benefits were being undermined by individuals.
“What I think is troubling is it’s the internet and websites where individuals can peddle whatever they like, and some people believe what they say,” he said.
Populist politicians were unfortunately also to blame for the spread of mistrust in science, he added.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, last year claimed vaccinations are dangerous, while the UK’s environment minister Michael Gove famously said during the EU referendum that people had had enough of experts.
Nurse said: “I think it’s driven by an anti-expert feeling. What’s interesting is populist opinions often run counter to evidence, to expert opinion, so they generally take up a position simply to rubbish them. And then they rubbish everything. In the end, that will go very badly wrong.”
The geneticist said he was reassured by the response of China to the recent scandal to He Jiankui’s unauthorised attempt to create gene-edited babies.
“In China itself the authorities have acted quite strongly,” he said. “China is not going rogue, as some people have argued.”
But Nurse added that, because CRISPR technology is relatively easy to use, researchers in countries with weak regulation will be tempted to do similar experiments.
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