Physics in Northern Ireland: Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty

Image: Shutterstock/nito
Image: Shutterstock/nito

The vote to leave the EU has brought with it a lot of uncertainty, and nearly three months after the referendum many questions remain unanswered.

The government is gearing up in preparation for triggering article 50, with the newly formed Department for Exiting the European Union slowly being staffed. There are various select committee inquiries underway gathering evidence, and conversations are taking place across the whole of Europe to address the ramifications of the UK leaving the EU.

The IOP is looking to ensure that the decisions regarding Brexit have the greatest possible benefits for physicists and physics as a whole but, for different physicists across the UK there are different concerns to address.

The IOP hosted a discussion in Belfast for physicists based in Northern Ireland to discuss what’s next for physics, and how the IOP can help ensure that the concerns of our members are heard.

Residents in Northern Ireland are in a unique position. Although they face leaving the EU with the rest of the UK, through the Good Friday Agreement they also have the right to an Irish passport if they wish, and thus remain citizens of an EU country. Not only that, but with Northern Ireland having a land border with an EU member state, there are further logistical and practical issues that will need to be addressed.

We first heard from Northern Ireland Assembly member Dr Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party, who highlighted that the issues faced by scientists are nestled within bigger ones such as freedom of movement, border control, and the future of the EU nationals who have already made Northern Ireland their home.

“Wherever we have to draw lines, there will always be issues,” said Farry, “and this is something we want to avoid.”

He pointed out that the unique position in which Northern Ireland finds itself does provide it with an element of leverage, and that there may be an opportunity to lobby for special arrangements. “There is potential for the region to become an EU member,” said Farry, “but we need to have a unified voice. If we don’t have one beyond the practical issues of Brexit, we may not be heard in Brussels.”

His take-home message was one of optimism: with Northern Ireland being in such a unique position, he explained, there’s room to negotiate agreements that would not necessarily be too restrictive.

Farry concluded: “We need to make sure we aren’t dragged out of the EU as part of a hard Brexit.

“There is hope for Northern Ireland because of the unique position we are in. We just need to make sure a unified voice is heard.”

We also heard from Professor Robert Bowman, the head of mathematics and physics at Queen’s University Belfast. Bowman described how EU membership is interwoven with the day-to-day workings of his staff – and that the department therefore faces a great deal of uncertainty.

Bowman’s concern mainly focused on how to maintain diversity and connectivity: with 58% of the research staff and 49% of the academic staff from Queen’s maths and physics department coming from outside of the UK, how Brexit is implemented would affect a large number of his staff.

Not only that, but with 20% of the department’s total grant income stemming from EU-funded research collaborations, Brexit has the potential to affect a lot of people and their projects, regardless of their passport.

Returning to the matter of uncertainty, Bowman asked: “How do we go about recruiting the best physicists in the world when there is so much political uncertainty?”

However, as a community of physicists, and therefore hard-working problem-solvers, Bowman said it may be necessary to take the lead and ensure we solve problems before they arise, and offer up solutions before they are needed.

He concluded: “Universities are usually around for a much longer time than governments. We need to take this opportunity to be proactive.”

The takeaway message from the talks and the discussion that followed was that despite the current uncertainty surrounding issues that may be affected by Brexit, the IOP – and through us, our members – need to take the lead.

For the IOP, we are particularly concerned about the effect that Brexit will have on people, collaborations, access to facilities, and funding; we want to ensure that UK researchers are still included in international collaborations and consortiums, and that, likewise, those from outside of the UK feel welcome to come and contribute to our ongoing efforts here.

This particular session was the first of many, with another taking place in Edinburgh next week and others due to take place in Wales soon. Through meetings like these and further discussions with our members, we hope to put together a positive vision for the UK physics landscape.

  • Are you also a physicist in Northern Ireland? You can still take part in the discussion on twitter: use #IOPNIbrexit to share your views and opinions too. If you have any concerns you would like to raise about Brexit, get in touch via
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Philippa Skett

Philippa Skett

Media Officer at Institute of Physics
Philippa was the IOP's media officer
Philippa Skett

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