[Reblog]: Excellent science in the UK is at risk if it votes for Brexit

Fonte: Occam’s corner

The European Research Council (the ERC) today announces the award of its 5000th grant to Dr Iva Tolic, a researcher in Croatia based at the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb. Tomorrow there will be a celebration of this significant milestone in the European Parliament, with the participation of Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas and the ERC’s President Jean Pierre Bourguignon. It is a symbol of the success of the ERC that the European Parliament takes this landmark so seriously. And it is as a symbol of the excellence of European scientists that Iva Tolic is being celebrated.

The ERC has, in its relatively short existence, rapidly gained a reputation for funding innovative cutting-edge science, what they refer to as ‘frontier science’. Its funds are much sought after; awardees receive much kudos from their awards. However the distribution from grants is uneven across the EU, with the newer accession states struggling to compete with the western countries, not least because of their less well-funded and less well-established scientific infrastructures. So it is particularly pleasing to see a Croatian scientist being celebrated. Tolic represents a typical European scientist, having worked in a number of European labs (in Denmark and Italy, as well as Croatia) as well as at Harvard during her career. Such mobility is viewed as beneficial in terms of research experience, although occasionally it can cause problems for those who, for personal reasons, are unwilling or unable to move around. She has won numerous awards including being chosen by the top biology journal Cell as one of their ‘40 under 40’ for 2014. In other words, a star.

Dr Tolic researches what happens during cell division, a process central to life but equally central – when it goes wrong – to the development of cancer. Cell division occurs in our bodies at a rate of millions per second, enabling us to produce new cells to replace old or damaged ones by division into two identical daughter cells. During this cell division process the nucleus splits into two with each half inheriting an identical set of chromosomes in its own nucleus. For this to happen a whole series of steps are involved to make sure this process happens accurately. Microtubules – long, fibrous rods – play a decisive role in making sure the chromosomes are correctly aligned in the so-called mitotic spindle and that, when division occurs, it accurately occurs at the centre.

 A key outstanding question is the nature of the interactions between the microtubules themselves with other structures (such as the kinetochore-protein structures in charge of controlling the movements of chromosomes during cell division). This is the area in which the ERC grant will be focussed, using a combination of imaging, computer science and theoretical physics. This battery of techniques will allow Dr Tolic to map out how the inner cell forces are generated and organised as well as how they act, with an emphasis on understanding a specific new class of bridging microtubules that could drive the movements of other kinetochores and therefore, play a key role in chromosome segregation.

Since cell division sits at the heart of what goes wrong, this work – fundamental though it is – obviously offers huge potential for the development of new strategies or therapies to tackle cancer. This project typifies why fundamental science is so important for downstream impact. If we don’t understand the cellular mechanisms which control cell division, including the various molecular interactions, we lose the opportunity of identifying new targets for drugs.

The ERC funds projects like this, awarding grants solely on the excellence of the science proposed and the proposer. The UK has been spectacularly successful in winning grants. Currently we host over one thousand ERC grants worth over €2 bn in total. It is worth stressing that if the UK restricted mobility – or voted to leave the EU altogether – these funds would be inaccessible. UK scientists could not apply for ERC grants at all, as Switzerland has already found out to its cost. Our science would undoubtedly suffer hugely.

Furthermore, as Tolic’s career path makes plain, the opportunity for scientists to gain experience in different labs, in different countries (and often in different disciplines) is often vital to developing into a scientist who can win these ultra-competitive grants, for which success rates hover around 10%. All the issues around the government’s stated aims of reducing immigration from within the UK as well as beyond are relevant to our success. We need the best scientists (of whatever nationality) to be able to participate in the teams of researchers within the UK universities if we are to continue to perform ground-breaking work such as that funded by the ERC. Multi-faceted experience, gained wherever needful in the world, is equally important for those writing the grant applications. Limiting free movement of researchers is likely to be a hindrance to excellent science.

As the EU collectively joins together to celebrate the landmark that Tolic’s award represents, the UK should recognize the dangers implicit in the referendum voters have been promised. Scientists working in the UK benefit directly and hugely from EU membership because of access to ERC funding. Funding that in some of the research-intensive universities may amount to as much as one third of their total research income. Tax-payers collectively benefit indirectly (but very significantly) from this investment in frontier science and its downstream impact. All this is at risk if the UK votes to leave the EU in the referendum.

Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge, Master of Churchill College Cambridge and a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC. She tweets at @athenedonald.


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