How a professor moved his research to a new country – and took his lab too
Boxes full of partially assembled equipment and instruments lie around Roel Dullens’ physical chemistry lab at Radboud University Nijmegen. Six months after his research group began dismantling its former workspace in Oxford, the lab is enjoying a slow revival 500 km away in the Netherlands.
Scientists are eager to resume experiments with colloids, examining the behavior of micrometric particles suspended in fluids under different conditions. Many materials, from milk and mayonnaise to liquid crystal displays, are colloids. Although a microscope is operational again, the lab is still months away from operating at its old pace.
The transfer from Oxford University to Nijmegen disrupted the research of Dullens’ five-person team for at least a year. “I’m not going to move my lab anymore,” he says. “It was complicated, 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 closer to his elderly parents and give his children a Dutch education.
The other reason was to avoid the adverse consequences of Brexit for British science. “I was fortunate during my time at Oxford to receive substantial EU funding,” says Dullens, “and the thought of not being able to access EU 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 unclear whether Brussels would allow the UK to join the £95bn Horizon Europe R&D scheme. euros from the EU as an associate member, as foreseen in the Brexit agreement at the end of 2020. It is currently unclear whether this will happen, as scientific cooperation remains a victim of the fallout from political disputes over Ireland North and other trade issues.
Last month, the European Research Council, the EU’s most prestigious science agency, gave its UK-based grant winners a just two-month ultimatum to move to an EU institution. or give up their subsidies. Although UK Research and Innovation, the government funding body, will try to step in to replace ERC funding, scientists who remain in Britain will inevitably lose their European prestige and networking opportunities.
If the UK exits Horizon Europe, scientists based in the country will lose 200-300 ERC grants a year – typically worth €1.5-2.5m each over five years – than they would otherwise have received, says Mike Galsworthy, director of the Scientists for EU campaign group. There are no figures to indicate how many others have already left the country in anticipation of the loss of EU funding, like Dullens, or how many are now considering leaving.
After applying for and accepting Radboud’s job, Dullens told Oxford he was leaving. “Their response was, ‘We really don’t want you to go. Can we do anything to improve your scientific life here and keep you in Oxford? But I immediately interrupted this discussion. Sometimes people apply elsewhere to improve their position in their current place, but I wasn’t playing that game.” After that, he adds, “Oxford were fully cooperative and let me take all my stuff. “
Telling his research team about his move “really was the hardest part of it all – the most nerve-wracking day of my life – but it also turned out to be one of the most beautiful parts”, he said. “I was telling them their supervisor was leaving and they were probably in shock for two or three days. But then everyone who was at Oxford and didn’t finish their doctorate said, “I’ll join you.”
For Arran Curran, the lab’s senior research technician, “the move was more stressful than any personal move I’ve ever done. It was all very, very stressful.
Curran had been building the group’s experiments and sensitive equipment since 2012, including lasers and microscopes, on which they operate. Everything had to be taken apart with extreme care, labeled and put away in crushproof boxes.
He hopes that the new installation in the Netherlands will not take more than a year. Right now, lab tables are covered in rods, lenses and small components the team calls “fancy Lego.” When assembled, they will form integrated microscope and laser systems. These will rest on special tables that float on compressed air legs, to prevent vibrations from interfering with the experiments. Each can take eight to 16 weeks to assemble.
His advice for others considering relocating labs? “The key is to be really realistic about how disruptive this will be to your research — on an 18-month scale in general,” he says. “And if you can, pay as many people as possible to help you.”
The expense, among other factors, means that not all scientists are able to undertake the full laboratory move. Paddy Royall, professor of chemical physics, had to leave his research team in Bristol when he joined ESPCI in Paris in 2020. He now supervises them remotely, but two plan to join him in September, with the lab to follow “once people in Bristol are done using it,” he says.
For Dullens’ team, Brexit has made it difficult to transfer equipment to the Netherlands, with the threat that Dutch customs could impose VAT on imports. In the end, that didn’t happen, says Dullens, “because we moved with a company that specialized in removals between the UK and the Netherlands, so they were very familiar with the system.”
Now the team is looking forward to resuming experiments and meeting new colleagues at Radboud’s Institute for Molecules and Materials. “It’s an institute where all the research groups in physics and chemistry come together,” explains Dullens. “At Oxford I was in a physical chemistry building, but I never really talked to physicists much and was never exposed to teaching physics. Here, I will probably have the opportunity to teach chemists and physicists, and that is good for me.
The new lab is on the top floor of the institute, spread across two sunny rooms (although the blinds go down once the lasers come on). One of Dullens’ PhD students, Miranda, who did not want her full name published, said, “It’s a building designed to make scientists happy. And Roel makes sure we always have a supply of UK tea bags in the lab.
Ruth [who wanted only her first name used] heard about the lab’s move barely two months into his PhD, and immediately saw it as “a great adventure, a really good opportunity that I hadn’t really considered before.” . .
“Moving interrupted my work, but moving here has really opened my eyes to Europe as a possibility. It has been positive but very chaotic,” she says. An unexpected bonus for her is that in the Netherlands- Bas, a doctoral student is treated “like an employee [and] paid a salary – we are no longer treated as students.
The Research Group undoubtedly has what it is happiest to have left at Oxford. “We were in an old building [the 1941 Physical Chemistry Lab] that wasn’t built for modern science, and there was always dust accumulating,” Curran says. “The dust – that was the real problem.”