I recently had the honour of speaking at Summer of Love 2016‘s Science After Brexit panel in Oxford. You can watch my speech on their channel above, as well as other talks at the same event and others organised around the nation [these links should become available over the next week]. As it is a topic that I feel passionate about, I wanted to share my views on this blog. You can see more of my science communication work on this blog, and on my YouTube Channel Draw Curiosity.
As a scientist who was born abroad, my stance on Brexit is unequivocally Remain. However, I do acknowledge that the decision to leave the European Union is not as black and white as Leavers and Remainers make it out to be – there are many factors which come into play and a rigorous assessment of our nation’s priorities is sensible before arriving at a decision. Of course being part of the EU comes with its limitations and compromises, but we must also not forget the benefits and security that it provides too, and from my perspective, the pros far outweigh the cons and I believe as a nation, we would be stronger in. At the time of writing, Article 50, the formal mechanism for leaving the EU, has not yet been triggered, and the lead Leave-campaigners have all stepped down from their positions, whilst Britain has been plunged into a climate of uncertainty. As it stands, there does not appear to be any plan as no one expected the result, and you don’t need an expert to tell you that uncertainty for a nation is bad. Socioeconomic damage has already occurred as a result of this, which will likely be prolonged in the event that we do leave. I’m sure you’re aware of the rise of xenophobic reports following the referendum, or UK researchers being barred from funding as a result of the Brexit vote, all of which adds to the climate of distrust towards the UK.
The Future of British Science Post-Brexit
In this post I am assessing Britain’s position in science and the future of our research and development as a result of Brexit, and it is crystal clear that we have a lot to lose if we relinquish our EU membership. I spent time researching and asking fellow scientists whether there were any positive outcomes, however small, about leaving. I came up with none, the only answer I heard from one colleague was “at least they will stop funding bad projects“, and after giving my talk, an audience member brainstormed and approached me with: “the ban on GM crops could be lifted in the UK if we leave the EU, and that could be beneficial“. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments, I would love to hear from you. However, right now none of these potential benefits seem to outweigh what we stand to lose.
If there are no immediate benefits to leaving the EU, the best plan should be to assess what makes our science so great right now, and how we can maintain those factors in the future, as well as addressing the aspects that aren’t doing so well.
What are the key ingredients to good science?
Whether we admit to it or not, funding is essential. To do good science, you need good scientists and good equipment, both of which require funding. The UK is currently a recipient of very generous grants from Horizon 2020 and Framework 7. We have already received nigh on £7 billion from the Framework 7, and we could be looking at losing up to £9 billion from Horizon 2020 if we withdraw from the EU. We are very privileged to be the recipients of the largest share of European Research Council grants compared to any other country.
Some will point out that EU membership is not a requirement to apply for either the Horizon 2020 or the Framework 7 grants, as non-EU countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Israel have successfully benefited from these programmes. But please don’t be fooled though, being within the EU gives us much more control over the decision-making process as to where these funds are allocated, and even if we left the EU, we would be expected to contribute to the budget if we hope to get grants in return, and it is likely that our contributions would be greater and for lower returns. Therefore, even though we may or may not lose this funding, we are still more likely to lose out, and it should be the government’s paramount priority to guarantee a replacement for this funding if we were unable to secure it upon losing our EU membership.
Let’s not forget the Innovative Medicines Initiative (or IMI for short) either, as it is another significant pot of money that we benefit from and which we would likely also lose in the event of leaving the EU. The IMI provides substantial funding to the medical sciences, and enables the funding and regulation of projects such as later stage clinical trials, which are the final ones before the release of a new medicine. The development of medication for the pharmaceutical industry is essential, and a sudden loss of funding would lead to a stall and possibly the cancellation of multiple projects currently in progress, meaning that those medicines may never reach the people who really need them.
Finally, a cut in funding will also lead to pay cuts and fewer jobs at British universities. The percentage of university funding which comes from the EU is quite unevenly distributed, so whilst top institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and London-based universities receive a comparatively lower percentage from the EU and may be in a better position to negotiate and replace that funding with additional government funding, universities that rely heavily on European grants are likely to close down or experience a severe downgrade in their research capacity as a result of Brexit.
Did you know that the EU has the largest share of science researchers in the world? By a considerable margin, we are ahead of US and China, who are also significant research bodies. EU researchers also output over a third of the world’s research, which is immense. The EU can be very proud of having fostered so many international collaborations between research groups, making the EU a truly international and prolific scientific hub.
The UK joined the European Economic Community a little late, in 1973 – which then later became the European Union in 1993. Over the past 40 years, the UK has almost quadrupled the number of published scientific papers, and have leaped from 15% to 50% international collaborations, many of which have been enabled by the EU. Compared to the US, the UK overall has a higher productivity, which is very impressive considering we are comparatively, very small. US domestic papers (ie – with no international co-authors) have a higher impact factor than UK domestic papers, but it is the 50% of international collaborations which place the UK above the US.
If we were to abolish freedom of movement, we will probably find that the UK would be left out of many collaborative ventures due to difficulties securing funding and the additional difficulty of setting them up in the first place. As such, this would be undesirable and would lead to a swift dwindling in our research capacity.
Last but not least, Britain should be very proud of how diverse our universities are compared to several decades ago, and we should be striving to educate and employ people from all backgrounds, as then we can be certain we are employing the brightest minds based on merit, and not just on wealth and who can get a visa.
However, the vote to Leave the EU combined with the current climate of uncertainty and rejection of foreigners will deter scientists from wanting to live and research long term in the UK, and will drive away many of our current students, essentially triggering a new type of ‘Brexit’ – the Brain Exit, or so-called Brain Drain. This will also contribute to overall more mediocre research.
I would encourage reading Dr. Mike’s Galsworthy eloquent blogpost “Debunking the Myths about British Science after an EU exit”, as many of the points I have made with regards to funding and collaboration are covered in depth in his post, alongside links to raw facts and figures.
However, before we even begin to bargain and make these changes, there is another point we need to address…
The referendum results have been an eye-opener as to how divided our nation is. You’ve all seen the graphs of the typical Remain vs. Leave voter, profiling the former as young, highly educated people and the latter as older, working class people who haven’t had the privilege of receiving higher education. Note that I am not using the term uneducated, as unfortunately, currently accessing higher education is a privilege. I do not know what proportion of Leave voters are Regrexiters, or used their vote as a protest vote or who truly believed the EU was bad for them, and whether they would still think the same after knowing that leaving the EU will impact Research and Development negatively.
We are approaching this topic as if science and research and development should be the highest governmental priority, but the results would suggest that this may not be in line with the rest of the country’s priorities, so perhaps we should ask two questions:
Should science be a top priority of our nation?
Not only because it is my livelihood, but also because I’m aware of how scientific discoveries overflow and contribute to infrastructure, create employment and enable the improvement of quality of life of many people, I’m inclined to say yes, it should rank high in the government’s priorities, and certainly not be ignored. This leads to the following question:
Why is science not the top priority for so many others?
I believe the answer to this lies in the graphs linked above. The profiles of those who voted leave would suggest they have little or nothing to do with the scientific community, and therefore, likely know little about us and therefore it is unsurprising that the work we do is undervalued. Maintaining good ties within the scientific community is essential for good science, but ensuring that we build strong bridges with those who are less involved with science is essential for everyone to realise the value of research and development and that it is worth investing in.
The following sentence I am writing absolutely free from judgement:
There are remarkable similarities to be drawn between those who voted Leave and Antivaxxers
In case you are unfamiliar with the term, antivaxxers are followers of the antivaccination movement, and choose not to vaccinate either their children or themselves to their detriment. It is fuelled by fear propaganda, generally of autism, big Pharma or other conspiracy theories, none of which are backed by science.
If you are knowledgeable about vaccines, or in this particular case, if you are knowledgeable about how leaving the EU will negatively impact British science, you may be inclined to immediately categorise those with the opposite opinion as “stupid” and “ignorant“, and reject them. If you were to engage with them, it is tempting to do so preceded by anger, strong emotion and shoving facts in their faces to let them know that THEY ARE WRONG. Unfortunately, such tactics will never convince anyone who disagrees with you to join your side, but will more likely further entrench their personal beliefs.
I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place for an emotional reaction, but if you are engaging someone who disagrees with you, on a topic you firmly believe they are misinformed on, it is our job to present this information in an adequate manner to enable minds to be opened and changed, to enable citizens to form their own opinions and make their own decisions with the best information available. This is by no means an easy process, but if science were a part of everyday culture, people would find it easier to access and trust that information, and would convey the message that scientific work is to be esteemed. The way to bridge this gap is by learning to engage and communicate with those who don’t work or typically engage with science, and show them how valuable our work is.
We have names for this: science communication, outreach, public engagement… I think we are finally realising the value and impact of this skill, and during times like this more than any other, it will be essential first and foremost to communicate our ideas and needs to the general public and the government, and events like the ones I spoke at, or this blogpost, are an excellent start for this process.
I hope you found today’s blog insightful. I would love to hear from you in the comments, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me – perhaps especially if you disagree as I want to reach outside of my own echo chamber, just remember to be respectful to me and others in the comments. If you enjoyed this blog and would like to be notified of new entries, consider signing up to the mailing list here and subscribing to the YouTube channel to follow more of my Science Communication endeavours!