Sir Fraser Stoddart: Brexit far worse for science than Trump

‘Irreversible’ damage to UK science from a hard Brexit will eclipse any harm caused in the US by a Trump presidency, says new Nobel laureate

November 23, 2016
Protestors at anti-Brexit demonstration, Trafalgar, Square, London
Source: Alamy
A great fall: ‘with hard Brexit, we won’t be able to put Humpty together again’

After the second major political shock of 2016, scientists have been mulling a rather grim question: is the election of Donald Trump as US president worse for science than Brexit?

Some have argued that the apparent indifference of Mr Trump to scientific endeavour endangers America’s position as the world’s undisputed research powerhouse. Others worry that the president-elect’s anti-immigrant rhetoric might put off top international scientists from joining research teams in the US.

But how would such damage to US science measure up to the harm that might be caused to the UK by its decision in June to leave the European Union?

“A Trump presidency will be not nearly as damaging to the US as Brexit will be to the UK,” said Sir Fraser Stoddart, the Edinburgh-born scientist now based at Northwestern University, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October alongside Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage for pioneering work on “nano-machines”, which can be 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

“If you have a ‘hard Brexit’, then it will be the case that ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again’ – the damage will be irreversible,” Sir Fraser explained in an interview with Times Higher Education.

“That is much more tragic than what is happening here in the US,” he added.

While the prospect of four or possibly eight years of a Trump presidency might seem like a bleak prospect to some US scientists, Brexit would be far worse because it would “go on and on, causing uncertainty and despondency” for far longer, Sir Fraser said.

“Trump can do a lot of damage on his first day in office,” he said. “But it will probably not be as damaging as we think; but if the US goes down a bad road, [it] will be able to turn it around – at the end of the process, America will be able to reset as a country and come out of it stronger,” he said.

If a Trump presidency has a negative impact on US research and the country more generally, the American people will “maybe realise that bringing in an uninformed person – at least from a science perspective – is not a good idea”, Sir Fraser said.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one country that has been led very well is Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a trained chemist.

“In the UK, a period of remarkable change and renewal happened when we were led by someone with a chemistry background – Margaret Thatcher – and one who had even been taught by a Nobel laureate [Dorothy Hodgkin],” he added.

Although Barack Obama, a former law professor, had no formal scientific background, Sir Fraser said that he had been hugely impressed by the outgoing US president’s interest in the subject.

“I was speaking to his science adviser recently and mentioned that I had written a book on molecular machines and wondered if President Obama would like me to send him a copy,” he said.

“He told me that the man was a total scientific and technological geek and was always reading books on these subjects – it is great that we have had someone in high office who, while having no science background, feels an affinity with the science community,” Sir Fraser added.

An immigrant academic himself – he moved to the US to take up a post at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1997 before moving to Northwestern in 2008 – does Sir Fraser think Mr Trump will deter other researchers from switching to the United States?

“America will always be a pull for scientists – the presidency is not so important in this regard,” said Sir Fraser, who described his adopted home as an “amazing country for getting things done”.

“The government is just part of this – it is individuals who drive the US forward through remarkable achievements in all fields of science, and I don’t see that changing,” he added.

Sir Fraser explained that he was more worried about the flow of European researchers into UK universities, which, he said, has “benefited enormously” research over the past 40 years.

“When I was working at the University of Sheffield and the University of Birmingham, I brought in many people from EU countries – it was transformative not just to our research but to British students who benefited hugely from their presence,” he added.

“I would not be receiving the recognition I am today if it had not been for these international researchers whose input helped to create the sheer magic of those research teams,” he said.

Sir Fraser also paid tribute to his schoolteachers, whose dedication was the bedrock of his subsequent success, demonstrating, he believed, how investment in education at all levels pays off in the long term.

“I have achieved because I was the product of a wonderful educational system – I had teachers who could have become university professors, and they were always taking us out on extracurricular activities – concerts, plays and sports [matches],” he said.

“Scotland is only a small country, but its ethos comes from the Scottish Enlightenment, which put education first, which is why its people have so often succeeded,” he added.

China and other countries of Southeast Asia, which are investing heavily in education, are now poised to do just as well thanks to their commitment to funding world-class education, Sir Fraser said.

“Any country that does this will steal a march on any country that is not seriously investing in education,” he said.

Underinvestment in education would also lead to political events like the election of Mr Trump, which has been credited by many pundits to the discontent felt by marginalised working-class voters, he added.

“When you have people who are under-educated and not able to participate fully in a rapidly changing society, these people are not sharing in the advances of science, the internet and technology,” Sir Fraser said.

“Countries such as China are saying we need many more people who are scientifically educated and we will invest in that – I do not see this in the US or the UK,” he added.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Brexit far worse for science than Trump, says Nobel laureate

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