Wednesday, 6 July 2016

JExiT: How do our young engineers and scientists feel about Brexit? And how might it affect the UK fusion program?

Disclaimer: This blog post is not representative of the opinions of UKAEA but are merely the opinions of some of the people who work here. There are some generalisations which I freely admit are just that! If this post offends you in any way then that was not my intention (unless you’re Michael Gove).

Thursday’s vote has cast a shadow over Culham in Oxfordshire; the site where the “Joint” European Torus (JET) is based. It replicates the process that powers the sun, nuclear fusion. We are a world leading laboratory and possess knowledge about operating and maintaining a fusion reactor that exists nowhere else.

Fusion is too big a problem for any one nation to solve in isolation. It requires a diverse range of scientific, technical and engineering knowledge, as well as manufacturing capability and political will. Commercial fusion energy is a technology which has potentially profound social ramifications; it could revolutionise global energy security increasing quality of life, reduce wars fought over border disputes and drilling rights and increase our knowledge and capability. The development cycle is long and difficult. Wars come and go, governments and countries rise and fall, biodiversity plummets and greenhouse emissions ramp up and all the time fusion development and international collaboration continues to narrow in on our goal, as it has since the 1950s.

JET is the largest magnetically confined fusion device capable of running the fuel mix required for a commercial reactor (Deuterium-Tritium). It is a key device on the fusion roadmap and essential to inform the design and operation of its successor, ITER, currently under construction across the channel in France. Funding for the operation of JET has been secured until 2018. Negotiations will take place to extend this until at least 2020. With ITER not expected to be in an operational state before at least 2025, vital skills and expertise will be lost unless an extension is secured. The majority of work on site is funded through Euratom, part of the Horizon 2020 framework which is ultimately paid for through our EU membership. It may be possible to become a non-EU member (as Switzerland is). At best, this will cost us as much as before and we will have the same privileges as we currently do, with the condition of free movement of people. Again, that's the best case. So what about UK funding? Well, post-Brexit Britain may be headed for a recession. We'll be waiting to see what happens in the coming months and have our fingers crossed that big science projects continue in the UK

JET is not the only project we manage on site, but it is a marvel of European collaboration.

Ramifications for people
What of the individuals who work at Culham and of the wider scientific community?
A poll from Nature published last month showed that 83% of UK researchers backed remain with 5% unsure and 12% backing Brexit. Of those intending to cast a vote, 78% predicted that Britain leaving the EU would harm UK science, 9% thought it would benefit science. Another poll commissioned for the previous general election showed that scientists are in general left leaning which from personal experience does not surprise me, especially in the younger generation.

So what reaction has there been from our graduates?
Soon after the result, after the initial anger and shock most tried to see the funny side. One instance was taking a quiz to determine “Which EU country you should move to”.
I got Iceland (which isn’t in the EU but is part of the single market). I don’t think it has a particularly thriving fusion program but it does have hot springs, volcanoes and most importantly… Bj√∂rk! (and are better than England at kicking a ball around). Following this more earnest discussion began. I asked some of our graduates how they felt about the result and if they would consider a move abroad. I have attempted to summarise their responses below:

How did you feel on hearing the result?
Shock, anger and sadness. The feeling that politicians are just in it for themselves and that some of the british public fell for their lies (I accept that people on both sides had many different reasons for voting). There was also the feeling that there are clearly vast social and political divisions within the country and that the EU was failing to connect with many British citizens effectively.

Would you consider moving country, where and why?
Everyone I asked said they would consider or actively are considering it. The most popular destinations were France or Germany (because of the Fusion programs and ITER), Switzerland (because of CERN) or Canada. Scotland and Scandinavian countries also proved popular. I think their reasons for leaving the country were broadly similar:

  1. They want to live in a progressive society, at the forefront of scientific/technological and social advancement.
  2. They don’t want to live in a country that they now perceive to be irrational, intolerant and harking back to a bygone era that never really existed.
  3. General uncertainty which will hopefully subside if anyone decides to take responsibility and start sorting this mess out.

One graduate summed it up succinctly: “Europe. I voted with my ballot paper, so I might as well now vote with my feet”. Unfortunately with the changes that will come into force leaving to start fresh in the EU may become more difficult for those without dual nationality.

What you think the outlook for Culham is?
Most agree that nothing will change in the immediate future and that JET will be granted the extension it needs. However there are fears that the fusion program here will be used as a political bargaining chip. Even if we get some access to the Horizon 2020 and the future framework we will not be allowed to lead (any access would almost certainly require signing up to free movement of people just as Switzerland has). The chances of the UK becoming a DEMO design centre are much lower now (EU-DEMO is the first demonstration commercial EU fusion reactor scheduled for the 2040s; the UK is simply too small to fund a UK-DEMO without unprecedented peacetime political will). With all the non-JET contracts we are involved in (ITER, DEMO, ESS) the UK now has far less leverage and bargaining power and will have to rely on our expertise, which are exemplary in these fields, but not necessarily/always unique.

Now that the dust has begun to settle how do you feel about the future?
Uncertain. Especially in the mid-long term it is felt that we as a country will miss out. We will still be a global player in science, technology, engineering, finance etc. but diminished. Future generations will have to suffer the consequences of a poorer, less diverse Britain. The obvious social divisions within the country are also a real worry to many. Practical things like buying a house will probably be more difficult on the whole. Prices will drop (or not go up quite as fast), but mortgage interest rates look set to go up and it may become financially unviable (or at least even less attractive) for young scientists and engineers to put down roots in Oxfordshire with austerity set to continue.

How has this changed your view of Britain and the British?
Many of us who consider ourselves British (or former-European) were angry with our country for allowing this to happen. But it’s not right to blame the British people. There were clearly many reasons people voted on both sides and if anything this should be a wakeup call to prevent this political trend of misinformation and anti-intellectualism from continuing (I’m looking at you Michael Gove). This is also a wake-up call for Europe as it is clear that the EU has failed to connect effectively with some areas of society. Those of us from elsewhere in Europe were saddened and felt like they were not welcome in the country they have been proud to call home. We are also worried about the far-right feeling vindicated opening a door to xenophobia and racism throughout the EU.

We are also lucky to have a large number of European engineers, scientists permanently based on site as well as visiting scientists from various EU institutions. How have they been affected? I asked my French colleague Alexandrine Kantor (@Alexa_Kantor), an electrical design engineer, how she felt, I’ve summarised her heartfelt response below:

"I am a proud French citizen by birth with multiple East European backgrounds, but my heart has belonged to the UK since I arrived in October 2013. When I woke up on Friday, my first feelings were a mix of sadness, anger and disappointment. It is hard to describe but I really felt, and still feel, unwanted. A heartbreaking pain, like the end of a relationship. The UK/Britons just turned their backs on me.
One of the popular reason to vote LEAVE was for immigration. We are hard-working. Some, less qualified, take the jobs that native Britons don't want. With all these jobs, we pay taxes, a lot of taxes. And with those taxes, we help the people in need. Yes, we help other migrants, but also Britons in need.
On a personal note, I have a great job that I am afraid to lose, I am also afraid to lose my eligibility to work in France.  This may be unlikely, but the fact is; no one knows. So yes, unwanted, heartbroken, insecure are my three words to describe how I have felt since The EU referendum.
But my life is in the UK which is now my home, and I truly have faith on the British people to find a solution to rise up stronger from this political and social crisis. "

Alex then went off to the pub to support England in their match against Iceland…

Luckily for us on Culham site, the European fusion program and ITER needs JET. Therefore it is very unlikely that we will down tools at the end of the funding cycle in 2018. That is as long as the British government and EU has enough sense not to throw away a world class facility with unique knowledge and expertise; to quote CEO Steve Cowley “the logic is there”... unfortunately logic gives me scant solace where politicians are concerned…

The question is not whether this lab will continue to some extent over the next decade (it will) - It is whether or not we will be a world leader or merely a participant.

Politicians can make it difficult for the scientific community but we must not turn our backs on each other. We must reach out and continue to collaborate wherever possible because every piece of the puzzle is important. Together we can realise commercial fusion energy. I only hope through this period of uncertainty we and the remnants of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland don’t get left behind ...If they do; there’s always Iceland.


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