Hawking blasts Brexit as “DISASTER for science”

Hawking teams up with Cambridge royalty including Masters of Trinity, Caius and Churchill to counter Queen’s backing of Brexit

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After The Sun announced the Queen’s alleged backing of Brexit yesterday, Stephen Hawking has got together with the great and the good of Cambridge science to write a letter to The Times condemning the plan to leave the EU as a “disaster for science”.

150 fellows of the Royal Society, all from Cambridge, have bandied together to sign a letter organised by Caius’ Master, Professor Sir Alan Fersht, to The Times today.

The impressive contingent, which includes three Nobel laureates and the Astronomer Royal, constitute 70 per cent of Royal Society fellows from Cambridge, making their warning that any threat to freedom of movement could severely affect research in Britain all the more powerful.

Hawking Queen

High treason   (Credit: Jack Benda)

They blast Brexit as a threat to “the long-term prosperity and security of the UK”, arguing that investment in science is comparable to “investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing” and that “the free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics.”

EU funding, they highlight, “has raised greatly the level of European science as a whole and of the UK in particular because we have a competitive edge . . . we now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here.”

“If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe it will be a disaster for UK science and universities.”

They cite the “desperate” example of Switzerland – once “a popular destination for young scientists” – which, after its recent vote to restrict migration of workers, is now failing to attract young talent.

Speaking to The Times, Sir Alan said that he emailed all Cambridge’s Royal Society fellows because there “is so much hot air going around, and this is something serious,” he said. “It struck a chord.”

Wednesday's front page

Wednesday’s front page: full of hot air?

Whether or not the “hot air” he is referring to includes yesterday’s controversy over the Queen’s alleged Euroscepticism and her apparent claim “I don’t understand Europe”, Sir Alan was evidently frustrated that the hard economic facts were being ignored in favour of rhetoric.

He said that British science had benefited from £2.4 billion of funding over seven years, and that, between 2007 and 2013 the country gave £4.2 billion in research funds but received £6.8 billion.

“More important is the quality of people we attract from continental Europe. They are crucial to our science, and there is no question about it: Britain is now a net receiver of brains,” he said.

Both Trinity’s current master and his predecessor signed the letter. Sir Gregory Winter warned about the negative consequences of a reduction in collaboration, while Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and former Master, backed the letter in part because European collaboration had in fact grown over his career.

AstraZeneca are building their headquarters in Cambridge

AstraZeneca are building their headquarters in Cambridge

Rounding things off, Dame Athene Donald, the Cambridge physicist and Master of Churchill, drove home the importance of a science to an advanced economy: “People should realise just how important science is to the UK economy. This isn’t about ivory tower scientists beavering away irrelevantly.”

Meanwhile, the Brexiters are celebrating the Queen’s alleged support for their cause, with Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg saying: “The reason we all sing God Save The Queen so heartily is because we always believe she is there to protect us from European encroachment.”

With the weight of some of the world’s best scientists now behind the “Stronger In” campaign, however, the distinction between such rhetoric and the economic reality might be gaining force.