One of the UK’s most important, and unusual, centers for studying cognition is facing imminent closure as a result of Brexit. Set up 22 years ago to study the minds of crowsflies and other birds known for their intelligence, the Cambridge Comparative Laboratory will cease operations in July.
Its director, Professor Nicola Clayton, told the Observer she was devastated by the prospect of finishing her research there. Nor did she doubt the main reason for the closure of the center.
“It simply came to our notice then Britain is leaving the EU, ”Clayton said. “Our main funding was provided by a grant from the European Research Council. However, after the UK voted in favor of Brexit, that meant an end to our support.
“As a result, we are facing closure in the very near future. It’s terrible.”
The Comparative Knowledge Laboratory is based at the village of Madingley, nearby Cambridge, and is currently home to a total of seven flights and 25 jays. Both species are members of the crow – or corvids – a family that is known for its keen intelligence. These Einsteins of the bird world can make tools, a skill that was previously thought to be possessed only by humans and a few other mammals, and can show signs of understanding the minds of other birds.
“Corvids are as smart as chimpanzees,” Clayton said. “They are planning for the future and creating canned food. More importantly, they are also trying to find other corvids and that is a very good model for theory of mind. If you intend to steal the hiding places of other birds, you need to be able to put yourself in their minds and try to understand what they are thinking and where they might put their food. You recognize that another entity has a mind like yours and that is very advanced. “
Other research has shown that corvids have strong memories of past events and that they use those to plan for the future. And, in another experiment at the lab, Clayton presented the crows with pebbles and a pitcher containing water that was too low for them to reach. Without hesitation, the birds caught the pebbles in their beaks and dropped them into the jar so that the water level would rise and they could drink it.
These understandings of bird brains have been reflected in other experiments on other species – such as parrots and octopuses – which have revealed surprising intelligence in some unexpected animals. “We’re just beginning to understand how these animals think, which makes the threat to our lab all the more heartbreaking,” Clayton added. “That’s why I’m desperate to find any last-minute funding that would save this ‘crow’s palace’. These birds have told us their innermost secrets. ”
The prospect of closure facing the Cambridge lab adds to growing fears among senior researchers about the Brexit reaction that is now hitting British science. EU officials were outraged by the UK’s stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol and this has led to other major science projects being blocked in the UK.
It was revealed this month that Cambridge astronomer Nicholas Walton had been forced to hand over his lead role of a € 2.8 million star map project to a colleague in the Netherlands because of Britain’s membership of the main European 95 billion euros. Horizon Research Program has not been ratified. He was approved for a Horizon grant but now has to take a passenger seat on his own project.
Similarly, Carsten Welsch, a physicist at Liverpool University who has earned € 2.6m in Horizon funding for long-term plasma research, faces the dilemma of having to relocate to the EU or hand over leadership to an EU institution. “This is really heartbreaking, given the long and extremely successful history of scientific cooperation between the UK and the EU,” he said.
These problems will inevitably have a major impact on the UK, added Njy Rios, director of Ayming UK, an international innovation advisory board. “We’re starting to see an old man scientists who have partnerships in other European countries moving – or considering movements – to Europe because they want access to Horizon projects. This raises real concerns about a major knowledge leak. “