UK and Italian scientists appeal for a pain-free Brexit

British ambassador Jill Morris and CNR president Massimo Inguscio take a positive view. Photo by Vittorio Tulli

CAPRI - Top scientists from Britain and Italy warned last week that a hard Brexit could jeopardise productive scientific cooperation between the two countries.

      Gathered for a bilateral conference in Capri, the researchers and administrators appealed to European leaders not to allow Brexit animosity to interfere with cross-border scientific partnerships that underpin the economies of modern industrial societies.

      “The worst effect of Brexit will fall on the UK, but there will be a lose-lose effect in the case of a hard Brexit,” said Alberto Quadro Curzio, a political economist and president of Italy’s Accademia dei Lincei, which was founded in 1603 and is the world’s oldest science academy. “The euro has brought increased profits for London as the financial capital of the eurozone. A hard Brexit will harm London and the eurozone as well.”

       It was one thing for Europe’s financial affairs to be managed from London and would be quite another if they started to be run from Singapore, Prof. Quadro Curzio said. The professor cited OECD forecasts predicting a Brexit-induced decline in Britain’s GDP of 1.3 percent in 2018, 3.3 percent in 2020 and 2.5 percent in 2023.

      “If there is a country in Europe that is sorry for Brexit, that country is Italy,” he said. “We have ties dating back to Italy’s unification struggle and a friendly sentiment, which is important. (Former prime minister) Enrico Letta should be the leader of the European negotiating team. I proposed his name, but they didn’t listen to me.”

       Prof. Quadro Curzio said the collaborative relationship between Britain and Europe should continue, with particular emphasis on defence, finance and science.

       British ambassador Jill Morris told the scientists her government wanted Europe-wide scientific cooperation to continue and was prepared to continue to pay in order to participate in joint projects. “We need to have early implementation in win-win areas like scientific cooperation,” she said.

       Julie Maxton, the executive director of the Royal Society, emphasised the advantages of cooperation and called on the scientific community to drive home its message to the politicians with a unified voice and hard scientific facts. Her scientific society was a relative youngster when compared to the Lincei, having been founded only in 1660, but was nevertheless the oldest such community to have survived in continuous operation. “We had a foreign secretary before the British government did,” she pointed out.

     “I think the politicians understand that science is international, that it has always been and will continue to be an international endeavour,” she said. “Our position is that we want the closest association possible with European programmes for science. We hope our negotiators will be able to achieve that.”

       Prof. Maxton cited Theodor Eimer, who spent time on Capri in the 1870s to study its blue lizard, as an example of the transnational nature of scientific enquiry. “He was a Swiss-born researcher from a German university on an Italian island in order to gather evidence to support the theories of a British scientist, who was Charles Darwin,” she said.

       The scientists discussed bilateral cooperation in the field of robots and sensors for the preservation of cultural heritage and promising developments in quantum computing. Several participants stressed the importance of a possible “researcher passport” to ensure that scientific collaboration was not stymied by obtuse border-control bureaucracies.

      “Freedom of movement unhindered by borders is of high importance for academia. It’s a serious concern for Italians, who have seen many of our colleagues move to the UK,” said Francesco Cataliotti, an expert in atomic physics. “Science is not confined to a single nation. It’s a world treasure. We will collaborate whatever happens.”

      British universities’ international connections are illustrated by a few numbers: 29 percent of staff recruited from the European Union, 11,500 PhD candidates from EU countries, 11 percent of research funding drawn from the EU, and 50,000 publications co-authored with European colleagues. That doesn’t preclude wider ties, with 91,000 students in higher education in the UK hailing from China.

      Massimo Inguscio, president of Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) and host of the two-day conference, said there was no doubt that the adventure of international scientific cooperation must continue. He cited the work of Alan Turing and Enrico Fermi that had helped to keep both countries at the forefront of scientific progress.

      “We have tried to show that the original dream of a Europe without borders is derived from science,” he said. “We hope the politicians will appreciate the importance of science, for the progress it produces and the knowledge. It’s the absence of prejudice that generates peace. Science is illumination.”

Italy, in red, appears a relative minnow in the number of researchers per head of population. Photo by Vittorio Tulli