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Brexit ‘a major error’ for scientific research

Brexit is “a major error” that will have a negative impact on scientific research in Britain and across Europe, an award-winning Franco-British scientist has said.

Professor Margaret Buckingham (pictured, right) said: “Not only will it make it more difficult to get funding, but it might reduce co-operation in other ways, as the European Union insists for countries like Norway and Switzerland that there be free movement, and of course people who voted for Brexit are against that.

“Britain has wonderful scientists and does very good research and it is so sad that there is not the political leadership determined to keep the country in Europe.”

Prof Buckingham was promoted to the status of Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur last year, in recognition of her work as a development biologist and scientific administrator.It is the latest recognition of a scientific career which included winning France’s top scientific distinction, the Gold Medal of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 2013. Only one medal a year is awarded.

“I was lucky in that they had not had a biologist for a while,” Prof Buckingham said. “My field, the development of muscle cells, was big news at the time, and lucky that I am a woman. Being dual-nationality also probably helped too as it is important to the French scientific community to show it is open to the world.”

The work carried out by Prof Buckingham and her team led to an understanding of how muscle cells are formed in embryos, and how muscle cells regenerate to repair damaged muscles in adults.

This led to further research into heart muscle formation, and into the role played by stem cells.

“The hope is that it can be taken further and lead to new treatments, especially for dreadful muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy,” she said. The research on heart muscle has improved understanding of heart deformations that occur in 0.8% of babies born in Europe, which may need surgery immediately after birth.

Prof Buckingham grew up in Aberdeen and studied at Oxford, where she gained her doctorate degree. She and her physicist husband Richard were then both offered postdoctoral research posts in Paris. She went to the Institut Pasteur, where she joined the team of François Gros.

She was admitted to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a French government-funded research institute, after a national examination, and also rose in responsibility in the Institut Pasteur, leading teams, laboratories and whole departments.

The Buckinghams have three children and lived in Paris, “in a typical 14th arrondissement apartment with three flights of stairs to walk up”.

They bought a country house in a small village in Burgundy five years ago, where Prof Buckingham, 72, spends as much time as possible working in her garden. “An absolute delight, as I have never had a garden before,” she said.

She no longer heads a laboratory but works as a collaborator on projects, and is a government adviser on scientific matters and a consultant on numerous panels.

She is a member of the Académie des Sciences in France, and the Royal Society in the UK.

Other work includes being on the scientific advisory panel of the European Research Council, a European Union body which offers grants for scientific research.

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