CAMBRIDGE, England – Just months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, plant scientist Philip Wigge started looking for jobs abroad.
“This resurgence of nationalism was totally surprising for me,” he said, adding that he was no longer happy for his young children to grow up here.
Within weeks, the 45-year-old German national will complete his move to the University of Potsdam in Germany, ending his seven-year association with the prestigious University of Cambridge.
Dr. Wigge’s departure embodies a big concern for academics in this historic university town: that Brexit will spark an exodus of talented researchers. That, they fear, could take the shine off Cambridge’s world-renowned status and render the city less attractive to the bioscience and tech companies that have fueled an economic boom in the city.
British lawmakers plan to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal to leave the EU. A rejection of May’s divorce deal likely means a delay in the UK’s exit from the EU, now scheduled for March 29, which could throw the academic community into further disarray.
Cambridge has grown rapidly in recent years, driven by an influx of high-tech and bioscience businesses like AstraZeneca, Microsoft and Apple, eager to capitalize on links with the cutting-edge science taking place here.
A study by consulting firm Development Economics, commissioned by AstraZeneca, estimated that Brexit could constrain the cluster’s growth by around 15 percent by 2032. That drag would come from lower availability of research funding, a diminished ability to attract the world’s best researchers, and lowered access to finance for startups.
For now, companies are betting that Brexit won’t seriously reduce the city’s attractiveness. “Cambridge is unique in terms of the quality of science it has,” said Mene Pangalos, a research and development chief at AstraZeneca. “That makes it a little more resilient to some of the risks that a hard Brexit might bring.”
While the 2016 referendum vote on Brexit has increased nervousness among some researchers from elsewhere in Europe, many are staying put for now.
Matthias Landgraf, a German-born neuroscientist, also started looking for a job outside Britain after the referendum. He was offered a post at University College Dublin in Ireland, but eventually decided against moving as it would mean living separately from his wife and children.
For now, he will remain in Cambridge, where he has worked for more than 25 years. “When I arrived, this was the most liberal place in Europe, and I do not recognize it anymore,” he said.
The number of EU nationals applying for research posts at Cambridge has fallen since 2016, according to data obtained by The Wall Street Journal through a Freedom of Information request. EU applicants to research posts at Cambridge have fallen to 22 percent last year from 23 percent in 2017 and 28 percent from 2014 to 2016. A university spokesman said the data didn’t show a clear trend.
With Britain inside the EU, academics from all over the bloc can freely take up jobs at British universities without requiring visas or residence permits. The agreement May reached with the EU would keep things that way until at least the end of 2020.
But the British Parliament rejected the deal and may well do so again on Tuesday, leaving open the risk that the UK leaves the bloc without a deal on March 29 and creating uncertainty for EU nationals already in Britain and others contemplating coming. May’s eventual aim is for EU nationals to be treated like immigrants from anywhere else in the world.
Some academics say they have already experienced a falloff in interest from EU researchers. Eilis Ferran, a senior academic at Cambridge, told British lawmakers last year that Brexit had stymied some of the university’s high-profile recruitment efforts.
Cahir O’Kane, a genetics researcher, said that before the referendum he would receive a few serious applications every year from EU students looking to get research experience in his laboratory. Since then, he’s had just one.
“Cambridge still has a lot going for it,” he said. But “Brexit will make it that bit less attractive.”
Professor O’Kane, a British and Irish citizen, would like to stay in Cambridge until he retires in about a decade, but will move if necessary.
“If it becomes impossible to recruit good people and pursue research in an international environment, I would not want to stay and twiddle my thumbs,” he said. “Eight hundred years of history isn’t why people come to my lab.”
Also at risk after Brexit is losing access to the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund, which provides roughly 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) a year in funding for British universities. At least as important as the money, the fund encourages collaboration with researchers in the rest of the EU.
Cambridge is an outsize beneficiary: it receives more grant money from Brussels – around 60 million pounds ($78.1 million) a year, on average – than any other university in Europe except its historic rival Oxford. EU grants account for around an eighth of the university’s total research income.
May’s troubled deal would preserve that access until at least until the end of 2020 but beyond that, or in the event of a no-deal Brexit, is unclear.
Like the university, life-science businesses that have grown up around it are most concerned about recruiting EU nationals post-Brexit.
Niall Martin, CEO of cancer specialist Artios, said universities in the Netherlands, Spain and France are particularly strong in the area that his company focuses on.
“We need to be able to get scientists from the good European universities and academic groups and bring them to the UK,” he said.