A Nobel Prize winning physicist considers taking his research elsewhere, while applications from foreign researchers have plummeted.
For many years Andre Geim was best known for designing an experiment that looked more like a parlor trick than a serious piece of scientific research. One Friday evening, in a moment of boredom at his Dutch lab, the Soviet-born physicist casually poured a glass of water onto a super-electromagnet. When the water struck the magnet it didn’t spill to the floor, as Geim had expected, but instead began to float as a cluster of pristine liquid balls. Geim, with characteristic wit and flourish, published his findings in the April 1997 issue of Physics World alongside a picture he took of a live frog sitting pensively on the levitating droplets.
Shortly after Geim arrived at Manchester University in 2001, he began hosting Friday night sessions for students to conduct what he calls “curiosity-driven research”—a similar way to demonstrate the value of impromptu experimentation. In 2002, following one of these gatherings, Geim’s attention was drawn to a ball of used Scotch tape in a nearby wastepaper bin. On it was a grey residue, from where it had been stuck to a piece of graphite. Geim, who specializes in minutely thin materials, placed the tape under an atomic microscope and found the layers of residual carbon were thinner than any he’d seen before. Immediately he suspected he had found graphene, a one atom-thin material (a strand of human hair is between 100,000 and 300,000 atoms thick) that had, until this moment, been only a white whale of speculation among theoretical physicists.
Source: National Graphene Institute
In the subsequent weeks Geim worked 14-hour days with one of his Ph.D. students, Konstantin Novoselov, to discover graphene’s extraordinary properties. The material, it turned out, was 200 times stronger than steel; electrons would whisk across its honeycomb-like structure 1,000 times quicker than in copper. The commercial value of the material soon became clear. A clutch of patents illustrate its potential uses: mobile phones with folding screens, ultra-long-life batteries, aircraft wings and high-speed trains. In 2015, to quicken the arrival of these products, Manchester University launched the National Graphene Institute, a project supported by £1 million a year ($1.3 million) in funding from the EU’s Graphene Flagship, Europe’s largest ever joint research project.
Alchemizing research into commerce often takes years. But graphene’s world-changing moment may be at hand. The material’s hexagonal lattice makes it a potential sieve, one that could be used to filter nanoparticles, organic molecules, and even salt from water. United Nations estimates suggest that, in just eight years, 14 percent of the world’s population will encounter water scarcity. Graphene could present a new, affordable, and potentially ubiquitous way in which to turn salt water into drinking water. In a climate-changed world, graphene might even save lives. Geim and Novoselov shared a Nobel Prize in physics for their work on graphene in 2010.
All of this potential came into doubt on June 23, 2016, when 51.8 percent of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. Geim describes himself as a Euro-skeptic. Yet he watched the results of Brexit trickle in with a sense of gathering dismay (“At about 4 a.m. it became clear that the Remainers were likely to lose,” he told me. “I went to bed acknowledging the human species were not very smart animals.”). Geim’s response was typical of that of many scientists, for whom freedom of movement and cross-border partnerships are indispensable. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 U.K. researchers who were polled, around 83 percent believed the U.K. should remain in the EU. Paul Drayson, former minister of science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” In Geim’s case, he and most of his engineers are not British by birth. Indian and Chinese nationalities dominate, followed by Russians, Ukrainians, Italians, Spanish and Polish. All of his funding comes from the EU. The Brexit result has cast thick doubt about how money and people will flow to and from the U.K.
“The question now is simply: to what extent is this going to be a disaster for science in the U.K.”
Geim washes an old mug in a grimy kitchen in the corridor along from his office at Manchester University. While the 12 months following the Brexit vote have been characterized by confusion about where the U.K. will stand in its future of dogged isolation, Geim seems clear on what will happen next. “Nothing positive can be expected,” he says. Geim speaks with an Eeyore-ish languidness, that can, as we move into his office, seem gloomy. “We cannot even expect a neutral outcome anymore,” he says. “The question now is simply: to what extent is this going to be a disaster for science in the U.K.” Geim suspects the U.K. will be summarily “kicked out of crucial scientific collaborations” such as the European Innovation Council and Horizon 2020, an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation program ever” which provides almost €80 million ($94 million) to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market.”
Geim’s bracing straightforwardness is born of experience. He came to the U.K. in the late 1980s with just £1 in his pocket. Having served Soviet Russia, Geim knows only too well the risks of blinkered national hubris and isolationism. In practical terms too, he has already seen the effects. Every year Geim receives a steady flow of applications from abroad seeking to join the Marie Curie research program in Manchester. In 2017 he has received no applications at all.
The danger Brexit poses is vast to British scientific research—that long and storied tradition which, from Newton to Hunter, from Turing to Crick, has enabled the U.K. to put its name to a multitude of world-altering discoveries. Sticklers will argue that Newton’s discovery of gravity, or Turing’s foundational work in computing happened without EU subsidy. But none could seriously contest that British scientists have flourished within the framework the EU has created for collaborative science, and the structures it has provided to facilitate that enterprise.
Even before Brexit, the level of U.K. science spending stood below 0.5 percent of GDP, a lower percentage than any other G8 nation. Loss of additional funding would compound the pressures placed on scientific institutions. Even if the British government manages to compensate for the financial shortfall, the psychological effects of Brexit will linger. In 2015, long before the Brexit vote, Dr. Sara Kendrew, an astronomer at Oxford University, warned of anti-immigrant rhetoric’s ambient effects. “Our foreign-born scientists are part of the hidden face of migration in this country,” she wrote in The Guardian. “They work extremely hard to teach and mentor students at our universities … and bring in millions of pounds in research funds.”
The cri de coeur of Brexit reflects the body politic’s diminishing interest in, bordering on outright dismissal of, facts and expertise. As Michael Gove, then U.K. Justice secretary and leading Brexiteer, notoriously put it last year: the people have “had enough of experts.” It’s a position reflected elsewhere in the world. The election of a TV celebrity and real estate mogul to the office of the U.S. Presidency has ushered in what many perceive to be a systemic assault on the sciences in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein
There was, for example, Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a man who had previously stated his belief that there was no need for an E.P.A. There was the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate change as a reality—scouring all mentions of the term from the White House’s website on inauguration day. And don’t forget the administration’s proposed $620 million (13 percent) cut to the National Science Foundation in its 2018 budget, and a cut of $3.1 billion (22 percent) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the nation’s single largest funder of basic science.
There has been resistance. On April 22, a day to celebrate Planet Earth each year, more than a million people gathered in some 600 cities to stage a March for Science. In Washington, where 100,000 gathered, a sea of bobbing placards displayed slogans ranging from the droll (‘Science is Real. Your Alternative Facts are √-1’) to the rallying (‘Science Belongs To Everyone’). Among the event organizer’s 21 stated aims was the desire to affirm science as a “vital feature of a working democracy,” and a call for evidence-based policy. How did science, a discipline that works in clear facts and demonstrable data, come to be so viciously contested and politicized?
It wasn’t always this way. In 1959 the Republican Dwight Eisenhower named George B. Kistiakowsky, a Harvard chemist, as his Presidential science adviser. The following year, when the presidency passed to Democrat John F. Kennedy, Kistiakowsky continued to serve. His post was considered immune to politics.
In those days, it fell to experts to explain their scientific findings, and to politicians to debate the best way in which to react to those findings. Now, more often, politicians debate not the policy but the facts themselves. “What scares me and many other people in academia is not only the decline in rational thinking,” says Geim. “It’s also the sense that politicians have started to put ideology in front of pragmatism. Politicians should never do this. They may play the popular vote, but not at the expense of making well-informed decisions.”
Collaborations between U.K. and European scientists were instrumental in the Large Hadron Collider project that discovered the Higgs Boson particle. The Human Brain Project is reliant on U.K. and EU partnerships, as is the European Space Agency. Speaking to the BBC, Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute, said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science.” U.K. scientists currently receive close to £1 billion annually for research from the EU. Professor Robert Young, who leads the research Graphene project at the University of Manchester, estimates that U.K. universities receive €1.60 for every €1 they put in to European research funding. Between 2007 and 2013, the U.K. sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4 billion, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8 billion.
“Science knows no borders, so to invent the best medicines, you need the best people”