Loss of EU funding clips wings of vital crow research in Cambridge

ali mohamed
ali mohamed28 May 2022Last Update : 2 years ago
Loss of EU funding clips wings of vital crow research in Cambridge

One of Britain’s most important and unusual centers for studying cognition is facing imminent closure as a result of Brexit. The Cambridge Comparative Cognition Laboratory, which was established 22 years ago to study the minds of crows, rooks and other birds known for their intelligence, will shut down in July.

The principal, Professor Nicola Clayton, told the… Observer she was devastated at the prospect of ending her research there. Nor did she doubt the main reason for the center’s closure.

“The problem lies with Britain leaving the EU,” Clayton said. “Our main funding came from a grant from the European Research Council. But after the UK voted for Brexit, our support ended.

“As a result, we are facing closure in the very near future. It’s terrible.”

Prof Nicola Clayton with a stuffed magpie.
Prof Nicola Clayton. Photo: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Located in the village of Madingley, near Cambridge, the Comparative Cognition Laboratory is currently home to a total of seven towers and 25 jays. Both species are members of the crow – or corvidae – family, which is known for its sharp intelligence. These Einsteins of the bird world can make tools, a skill 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 just as intelligent as chimpanzees,” Clayton said. “They plan for the future and create food supplies. More importantly, they’re also trying to find the stock of other corvids and that’s a really good model for a theory of mind. If you’re going to steal other birds’ stock, you need to be able to put yourself in their minds and try to understand what they’re thinking and where they might have left 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 use them to plan for the future. And in another experiment in the lab, Clayton presented crows with pebbles and a pitcher of water that was too low to reach. Unfazed, the birds grabbed the pebbles in their beaks and dropped them into the pitcher so that the water level rose and they could drink it.

These insights into birds’ brainpower have been reflected in other experiments with other species — such as parrots and octopuses — that 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 for last minute funding to save this ‘corvid palace’. After all, these birds have shared their deepest secrets with us.”

The prospect of closure facing the Cambridge lab adds to growing fears among senior researchers about a Brexit response now affecting British science. EU officials are outraged by the UK’s stance on the Northern Ireland Protocol and this has resulted in other major UK science projects being blocked.

It was announced this month that Cambridge astronomer Nicholas Walton had been forced to hand over his leadership role of a €2.8 million star mapping project to a colleague in the Netherlands because of the UK’s membership of the flagship European Horizon research program of €95 billion has not been ratified . He was approved for a Horizon grant, but now has to take a passenger seat in his own project.

Similarly, Carsten Welsch, a physicist at the University of Liverpool who won €2.6 million in Horizon funding for long-term plasma research, faces the dilemma of moving to the EU or handing over leadership to an EU institution. “This is really heartbreaking, given the long and extremely successful track record of scientific cooperation between the UK and the EU,” he said.

These issues will no doubt have a substantial impact on the UK, added Njy Rios, a director of Ayming UK, an international innovation consultancy. “We are already seeing senior scientists with collaborations in other European countries moving – or moving – to Europe because they want access to Horizon projects. This raises a real concern that a serious knowledge drain is occurring.”


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