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British cryptologist in Belgium explains brain drain resulting from Brexit vote

Nigel Smart, a British cryptography professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, is pictured in Leuven, Belgium, on Dec. 19, 2018. (Mainichi/Kosuke Hatta)

BRUSSELS -- As the confusion over Brexit becomes increasingly drawn out, a major brain drain is occurring across various fields in the United Kingdom, and academia is no exception.

The Mainichi Shimbun asked Nigel Smart, a 51-year-old British professor and a forerunner in cryptology -- a field that is indispensable for secure telecommunications -- what prompted him, along with his colleagues, to leave the U.K. for a university in Belgium.

Following a stint at an IT company, Smart began working at the University of Bristol in western Britain, where he founded a cryptology research group and stayed for 17 years. But in January 2018, he transferred to the Catholic University of Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, a city 25 kilometers east of Brussels. It was a year and a half after the 2016 U.K. referendum on its European Union membership resulted in almost 52 percent of voters in favor of leaving the EU. The direct reason for Smart's move was the increasing difficulty in recruiting people to his university in the U.K.

"It was always very difficult to recruit people in my area wherever you are on the planet. From the date of the referendum until the point I left, which was 18 months, I got zero applications for jobs," said Smart. "(I needed) to recruit postdocs, PhD students, but no one wanted to come and work in the U.K., because it is essentially a pariah state to work in. The image that has been portrayed is that it's not a welcoming place for people to come and set up."

Immigration was the point of contention in the Brexit referendum. Once the U.K.'s withdrawal from the EU was decided, the British government unveiled a clear policy to clamp down on immigrants who would engage in menial labor, and to welcome larger numbers of highly skilled migrants. However, Smart's remarks indicate that skilled workers are seeping out of the U.K. He didn't move to Belgium alone; he was a member of a five-person research team with nationalities ranging from British, French, Italian to Romanian, that up and moved together.

"I relocated to Leuven a year ago, and since then I've recruited people like no problem. You can see the group tripled in size in one year whereas the previous 18 months I couldn't recruit anybody," Smart remarked. He pointed out that this was evidence of how serious the situation was in the U.K.

Since the British House of Commons shot down Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit proposal on Jan. 15, fears of a no-deal Brexit -- in which the U.K. would leave the EU without any agreement on the two parties' relationship -- are spreading. Universities UK, an advocacy organization for universities, warned that the situation was "one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced." It also suggested, "this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover."

Smart described the current situation at his old research facility as "chaotic," saying that other researchers who were there have left for Norway, Germany and other greener pastures. And this, he added, was "just in my small little area of science."

What's worrisome in addition to this brain drain is research funding. Part of the money from Horizon 2020, the world's biggest research funding program created by the EU, is allocated to the field of cryptology. However, if the U.K. goes the route of no deal Brexit, research institutions and researchers in the U.K. immediately lose eligibility for Horizon 2020 funding. The U.K. is hoping to maintain a collaborative relationship with the EU by continuing to contribute to the EU's research funding program, but specific discussions about the issue have yet to take place.

Smart believes that if it had not been for the Brexit referendum, he would still be in the U.K.

The people who voted to leave in the referendum either had "a feeling of nostalgia for the past, are racist or are stupid," Smart said. Regardless, he added he had "no sympathy at all" for them.

Smart's barb-filled words for his compatriots are a reflection of the deep divisions that the national referendum has brought upon the U.K.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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