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“European researchers help keep us safe – don’t piss them off”

Sir Keith Burnett, a physicist and now vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, discusses the future security of the UK following the referendum vote

Next month, I shall be at the ceremony where a colleague is admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. It is an honour that many scientists covet and few receive.

He is one of a select group chosen for their contribution to science in the Commonwealth. There are Fellows from places like India and New Zealand but most are, however, British, like my own dear colleague.

He is being admitted to the Royal Society for his work on a subject you likely will not have heard of, ‘quantum information science’.

This is an area in which the UK has done extraordinarily important work in the past and, because of recent financial commitment by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has a wonderful future ahead. We shall be using the funding to proceed in the development of quantum technologies.

We are lucky at Sheffield to have an amazing experimental group in this area lead by another Fellow of the Royal Society. I get goosebumps when I hear him talk about his work, it is so damned exciting.


There are many important applications of this British work that we shall want to exploit in the years ahead but I’ll talk about one. Because it is so important to our future security.

We all know that the confidential communications that criminals can’t get into is crucial for all our daily business transactions.

You may have heard the word encryption used more often in this context. Encryption means making a message that can only be read by the person you have sent it to, and not by some dodgy person trying to get into your bank account. We may have heard someone say “the stronger the encryption, the safer the message.”

My colleague has, along with others, developed ways to use quantum mechanics, the theory of the sub-nano world, to make encryption stronger than anyone thought it could be.

This “super code” is just one of the remarkable aspects of the future quantum-based technologies that we want to develop in the UK. It is a stunningly important development in a world searching for safer communications.

And we actually have the relevant technology base to make us world leaders. This comes partly from our impressive range of companies that make the ‘optoelectronics’, that is the lasers and other fancy optical stuff that we need to make practical devices.

Many of these companies are actually based in Scotland and the Scots have done a superb job in this area, in the place some call Silicon Glen.

One catch

So we are well set for future technology growth as long as we have the people to keep it trucking.

Now I want to tell you why we may have trouble. Did I forget to mention where my esteemed colleague was born?


The same Poland that started the cracking of the Enigma code before Turing finished the job. The same Poland that sent pilots to fly in the Battle of Britain. The same Poland that gave us the Solidarity movement that helped throw off Soviet totalitarian rule.

OK you might not care about that, but you should care about keeping people in the UK who will help make us safer, and who also may be the way your kid gets a high tech job.

So be aware that my Polish-born British colleague is joined by a bunch of other brilliant scientist at our universities, many from countries around the world.

That is why I am so glad that many of our politicians have said since last week’s vote that we are going to try to preserve the rights of EU citizens to work here. I had never thought there would be an issue. But lots of my colleagues need this sorted fast.

Please don’t piss them off.

Don’t do things that would make us lose them to the US or even China, which is looking to hire people in this field, as well as others across science, engineering and medicine.

We are in the middle of a great big EU project that would have made sure we dominated the world in the subject. Let’s hope we can keep that on the road too.

And for me. I’m giving the speech at a big quantum tech bash in Birmingham, home of the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology.

And I don’t want to have to tell them I’m moving to Scotland to stay in Europe, even though my family, a whole number of generations ago, came from there.

If we don’t act quickly to secure and protect precious international talent, our country may be facing ever bigger security challenges that we can ill afford.