Boxes full of equipment and partially assembled instruments lie around Roel Dullens’s physical chemistry laboratory at Radboud University Nijmegen. Six months after his research group started to dismantle its old workspace in Oxford, the lab is undergoing a slow renaissance 500km away in the Netherlands.
The scientists are impatient to resume their experiments with colloids, examining the behaviour of micron-sized particles suspended in fluids under different conditions. Many materials, from milk and mayonnaise to liquid crystal displays, are colloids. Though one microscope is back in operation, the lab is still many months away from running at its old pace.
The transfer from the University of Oxford to Nijmegen will have disrupted the research of Dullens’s five-strong team for at least a year. “I’m not going to move my lab again,” he says. “It has been a hassle, but I don’t regret it at all.”
Dullens gives two main reasons for leaving Oxford, where he had worked for 14 years and been a full professor for five. One was to return to his native Netherlands to be close to elderly parents and to give his children a Dutch education.
The other reason was to avoid the adverse consequences of Brexit for UK science. “I’ve been lucky enough during my Oxford period to receive substantial funding from the EU,” Dullens says, “and the idea of not being able to access European funds was definitely a reason for me to look elsewhere.”
When he accepted Radboud’s offer of a professorship in physical chemistry last summer, it was not clear whether Brussels would allow the UK to join the EU’s €95bn Horizon Europe R&D programme as an associate member, as envisaged in the Brexit agreement at the end of 2020. It remains uncertain today whether this will happen, as scientific co-operation remains a victim of fallout from political disputes over Northern Ireland and other trade issues.
Last month, the European Research Council, the most prestigious EU science agency, gave winners of its grants who are based in the UK an ultimatum of just two months to either move to an institution within the EU or give up their grants. Although UK Research and Innovation, the government’s funding body, will try to step in to replace ERC funding, scientists who stay in Britain will inevitably lose prestige and European networking opportunities.
If the UK falls out of Horizon Europe, scientists based in the country will lose 200 to 300 ERC grants a year — typically worth from €1.5mn to €2.5mn each over five years — that they would otherwise have received, says Mike Galsworthy, director of the campaign group Scientists for EU. There are no figures to indicate how many others have already left the country in anticipation of lost EU funding, such as Dullens, or how many now plan to leave.
After applying for and accepting the Radboud position, Dullens told Oxford he was leaving. “Their response was: ‘We really don’t want you to leave. Is there anything we can do to improve your scientific life here to keep you in Oxford?’ But I cut off that discussion immediately. Sometimes people apply elsewhere to improve their position at their current place, but I wasn’t playing that game.” After that, he adds, “Oxford was fully co-operative and let me take all my stuff.”
Telling his research team about the move “was really the hardest part of the whole thing — the most nerve-racking day of my life — but it also turned out to be one of the nicest parts,” he says. “I was telling them their supervisor was leaving and they were probably shell-shocked for two or three days. But then everyone who was in Oxford and not finishing their PhD said, ‘I’ll join you’.”
For Arran Curran, the lab’s senior research technician, “the move has been more stressful than any personal house move I’ve ever done. The whole thing was very, very stressful.”
Curran had been building up the group’s experiments and the sensitive equipment since 2012, including lasers and microscopes, on which they run. Everything had to be taken apart with extreme care, labelled and packed away in crushproof boxes.
He hopes the new set-up in the Netherlands won’t take more than a year. At present, the lab tables are covered with rods, lenses and small components that the team call “fancy Lego”. When assembled, they will make up integrated microscope and laser systems. These will rest on special tables that float on compressed air legs, to stop vibrations interfering with experiments. Each can take eight to 16 weeks to put together.
His advice for others planning to move labs? “The main thing is to be really realistic about how disruptive this will be to your research — on the scale of 18 months typically,” he says. “And if you can, pay as many people as possible to help you.”
The expense, among other factors, means not all scientists are able to undertake the full lab move. Paddy Royall, a professor of chemical physics, had to leave his research team behind in Bristol when he moved to ESPCI in Paris in 2020. He now supervises them remotely, but two are intending to join him in September, with the lab to follow “once people in Bristol have finished using it”, he says.
For Dullens’ team, Brexit complicated the transfer of the equipment to the Netherlands, with the threat that Dutch customs might impose VAT on the imports. In the end that didn’t happen, Dullens says, “because we moved with a company that specialised in UK-Netherlands removals, so they knew the system very well.”
Now the team is looking forward to resuming experiments and meeting new colleagues in Radboud’s Institute for Molecules and Materials. “This is an institute where all the physics and chemistry research groups are together,” Dullens says. “In Oxford I was in a physical chemistry building but I never really spoke that much to physicists and didn’t have any exposure to physics teaching. Here I will probably get the opportunity to teach the chemists and physicists, and that’s good for me.”
The new lab is in the institute’s top floor, spread across two sunlit rooms (although the blinds will go down once the lasers get going). One of Dullens’ PhD students, Miranda, who did not want her full name published, says “it’s a building designed to make scientists happy. And Roel ensures we always have a supply of British tea bags in the lab.”
Ruth [who wanted only her first name used] heard about the lab’s move just two months into her PhD, and immediately saw it as “a great adventure, a very good opportunity that I hadn’t really considered before . . .
“The move has halted my work but actually moving over here has really opened my eyes to Europe as a possibility. It’s been positive but very chaotic,” she says. An unexpected bonus for her is that in the Netherlands a PhD student is treated “as an employee [and] paid a salary — we’re not treated as students any more.”
The research group has no doubt what they are most pleased to have left behind in Oxford. “We were in an old building [the 1941 Physical Chemistry Lab] that wasn’t built for modern science, and there was always dust building up,” says Curran. “Dust — that was the real problem.”