politics, Science, Science and society

Brexit and the future of UK science

The news here in the UK has, of course, been dominated by “Brexit“, the advisory referendum vote that saw the UK populace vote by a narrow margin to leave the EU. There is absolutely no way I’m going into the politics or constitutionality of this, as many actual political commentators are far more equipped to do so, but, as a scientist, the expected effects of UK science are of great interest to me. There is an absolutely excellent blog post on this here – this is from evidence given to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology by Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson: Scientists (and others) will be pleased to note that is therefore full of facts, data and supported evidence. It is a long but worthwhile read. I will quote from a few highlights to illustrate the main points, and then I will indulge myself and speculate a little on what my experience of the international nature of science has made me feel about large-scale political entities such as the EU.

The firm conclusion of this piece is what many scientific researchers (who overwhelmingly were in favour of remaining in the EU) knew anyway: British science has benefited hugely from being in the EU. What’s interesting is that this isn’t particularly to do with funding (although that is not insignificant), but because of what one might call the essence of the EU: international co-operation, specifically, international collaborations between research labs and the free movement of scientists between countries. It is this that has driven the EU into prime position as the research hub of the world:

“Since the 1980s, global research has become rapidly more international. The prevalence of scientific research papers co-authored by researchers from more than one country has risen sharply. However, some countries have seen this increase more than others. Since 1981, the UK has risen from 15% of its papers being international (and 85% domestic authors only) to over 50% international today. In fact, almost all the growth in UK output is in the form of international collaborations. This rate of increase can be compared to the US, which has seen a rise in internationally co-authored papers from 6% in the 1980s to 33% currently.” [Bold emphases mine].

That’s nice, but who cares who writes the papers? Does it make a difference to research quality? Well, yes, actually, and more than you might think. Here’s a graph reproduced from the site.

UK science
How the UK’s rise in high-impact international collaborations has helped the UK push ahead of the US recently in science productivity. By Jonathan Adams.

Their conclusion is pretty emphatic:

“Multiple sources have identified international co-authored papers as having substantially higher impact than domestic-only papers. The UK’s strong lead over the US on proportion of international output interacts with the added impact of international output – resulting in the UK science base now measuring as more productive than that of the US. This is despite the US’s domestic-only papers showing more citation impact than UK domestic-only papers. International collaborations give the UK the research quality edge….it is not too adventurous a conclusion to state that participation in the EU science programme looks highly likely to have helped the UK science base become more productive than the US.” [Bold emphases mine].

It’s also worth noting that one of the frequent complaints levelled at the EU, that of excessive bureaucracy, is actually reduced when it comes to scientific collaboration:

“A single one-stop shop for international collaborations removes a vast amount of bureaucracy that would be incurred otherwise. Without the EU common pot of funds and common administration, a UK lab looking to partner with, for example, teams in four other countries would encounter serious trouble in finding full funding. The UK government (or any other) would be unlikely to fund a five-way collaboration on which the UK partner undertook 20% of the work. Similarly, all five partners attempting to obtain matched funds from their governments means five times the administrative loads, aligning five timelines of funding applications and work, and five times the jeopardy in getting the monies through. If each of the five applications had a 20% chance of success, then the overall chance of getting funding for all five partners would be 0.25 = 0.00032. The EU, however, regularly funds teams of many partners.”

The other primary conclusion is that if we try to negotiate some sort of deal with the EU after exiting, it will never be as good, either financially or in terms of research productivity, as remaining in the EU. The arguments put forth essentially boiled down to: (1) The UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, therefore money sent to the EU could be ploughed directly back into UK research (yes, this is the same argument that led to that made-up £350 squillion to the NHS figure) and (2) that we can buy back into EU fudning programmes such as Horizon 2020, as other countries like Norway and Switzerland do.

“Combined, the claims amount to an appealing package: On leaving the EU, the UK could continue reaping all the benefits of full membership on the EU science programme whilst having significant extra cash-in-hand to boost public investment in R&I at the national level. Both these notions are dangerously – and demonstrably – misinformed.”

OK: why?

“Even the more optimistic assessments of the UK’s economic performance following a Brexit (such as the “best case” +1.6% GDP increase by 2030 by Open Europe) all analyses model an immediate loss in GDP for the transition years following a Brexit. The size of that loss is substantially larger than the current net contribution of the UK to the EU budget…Therefore the attempt to financially gain in the short term via a Brexit is akin to killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It is a sure-fire short term loss, wiping any free money for R&I investment until at least a decade down the line – according to the most optimistic scenarios. This strongly counters any claim that voting to leave the EU provides immediate funds for a shot in the arm of national science. The extra money simply will not be there for science as the UK economy is hit by huge transition costs.”

Yes, this is a similar objection to those raised around business interests: that however much money we pay in, we get far more money back via our boosted economy. This isn’t a coincidence: the same principles are at work. Does this also apply to the Remainer (pro-EU) objection that if we negotiate access to EU science funding, like negotiating trade deals, we will get ultimately get a worse deal? Well, yes. Like in fact the Swiss did:

“The UK must consider that a withdrawal from the EU, followed by Horizon 2020 ‘buy in’ such as that of the Swiss model, will require continued EU budget contribution…[The UK] will also have to follow Switzerland in creating domestic administration structures for programmes where it will fund UK participation in Horizon 2020 collaboration from domestic budgets. This has the double disadvantage of replicating a complete administration structure in the UK that operates on EU financial and legal rules without any role in creating those rules, and it must agree to a single evaluation decision made in Brussels to avoid damaging the partner-worthiness of UK participants with an additional UK level of evaluation…Swiss participation in H2020 and financial benefit has declined significantly, despite negotiated access. The above graph suggests a drop in participation by over 40% for Switzerland – highlighting the cost of renegotiation confusion even for a highly-competitive scientific community.”

The UK, incidentally, wins more Horizon 2020 funds from the EU than any other country. I’ve heard colleagues describing losing access to EU grants as the equivalent of losing an entire research council, like the MRC. And this would be on top of years of austerity that have squeezed budgets extremely tight (ironically I also know that many people switched to targetting EU funding because of the difficulty of getting UK research council funding).

I won’t go any further into this report, but will stress again that it’s highly worth reading fully for anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject. Jonathan Adam’s and Karen Gurney’s digital report, “The implications of International Research Collaboration for UK universities” may be downloaded here. Those wanting a nice summary from another reputable source may also consult the BBC news article here.

This is when I get back to my own experiences: this report really resonated with me, because it confirmed something I’d often felt intuitively. One of the things that I love about being in the scientific community is that it feels like it is without borders. It is international and multinational, it is collaborative, and everybody more or less gets along whilst respecting each other’s culture. In the lab where I did my doctorate, there were thirteen people, of eight different nationalities. In every department I have worked in, there have been upwards of fifty different nationalities. This felt like nothing but a good thing. I often joked to my family that science “Was like the UN, but it actually worked.” Of course, it’s far from perfect. It’s not immune to the gender and racial biases that infect wider society, or the usual human foibles. People argued, as people do. But it does, generally, work, and has a self-regulating system that mostly keeps it honest. I’ll admit that I felt utter dismay when the referendum result came in, and not just for UK science.

Of course, I realise that mine is a rarefied perspective, but I think it is interesting that this is one area in which the EU – which I will be the first to admit has many structural problems – does excel. Granted that this is partly due to the nature of science itself, and partly because it is not purely market-driven, like trade, it does point towards the future.

What has been obvious in the whole referendum fiasco is that there are vast swathes of people who feel disempowered by modern politics. I do myself, a lot of the time. There has been a huge surge in nationalism in recent years, which feels like an oddly retrograde step – part of this is fuelled by right-wing xenophobia – but part of it is a lot of people having a major identity crisis because they want a group to belong to. People have been arguing about taking back our sovereignty from the EU, forgetting that nation states are a relatively modern historical invention. Perhaps instead they remember the bloody European empires that came before that, which is what they fear when they talk about dictatorship from Brussels, yet they don’t seem to realise that removing ourselves from the EU still means that we have to bide by a lot of their rules without getting a say in them. It is interesting that, anecdotally at least, many people who voted Leave did so as a protest vote, with some not realising that this was a one-person-one-vote system, instead of the usual first-past-the-post that happens in local elections here. They may well have handed back power to the privileged elites they were protesting against.

It’s interesting that most science fiction in which humanity is portrayed as spacefaring, particularly amongst other spacefaring races, describes us as having a “world government”, with a “President of Earth” (even if this President almost invariably seems to be the President of the United States). There are even galactic-level political entities, like Star Trek’s Federation: some are portrayed as benign agents for world/galactic peace and prosperity, some as dark Empires or dictatorships oppressing little worlds. Someone in fact sent me a gloriously accurate little meme on this theme explaining the EU in scifi terms:

Eu in sci fi terms
From Doug Adamson via one of those Facebook memes

I have to say that despite being a Remain voter, I do in fact identify more with the Babylon 5 image: a messy and loose organisation of worlds, many of which have previously invaded each and still hate each other, niggling endlessly over trade agreements and trying to advance their own agendas whilst the more altruistic and idealistic individuals try to push for things to get better for everyone.

Rather than heading towards a future “world government”, howsoever that would be constructed, it seems that people want to be part of smaller groupings, rooted in a sense of historical community – Scotland, say, rather than the United Kingdom – something that finds expression in nationalism just as the world becomes more and more interconnected. Globalisation is usually talked about in negative terms: here, it is in terms of cheaper manufacturing in other countries shutting down UK industry, or immigrants “stealing” jobs from locals. Lacking expression and self-determination, it’s too easy to go down the us-versus-them mentality, not helped by a media that misinforms and spews propaganda for its own benefit.

I feel that we need to start thinking beyond nations and borders and ethnic identities – apart from the fact that we are all human beings, it’s a fact that for many matters, we do need some sort of world government. There are too many problems that affect people globally – climate change being the obvious example – and it’s too easy for the strong (in many cases meaning: the rich) to oppress the weak and the poor. But at the same time, we don’t want that to mean people feeling that they have disappeared into a homogenous mass who have no voice, whilst someone unreachable up on high dictates terms to them. We need systems of governance in place from the very local all the way up to the global. We have local to national, but beyond that it’s left to the EU, and bodies like the UN, in which countries are represented – but these representatives are not chosen by the citizens of the countries there. The EU itself has been strapped onto existing democratic systems that leave huge swathes of people under-represented. The UK’s system is a case in point: at the last election, the actual number of MPs returned in no way reflected the number of votes cast, because of our first-past-the-post system. The Conservatives formed a government with a minority vote, and you would be forgiven for thinking that there were hardly any Labour voters in Scotland, but this was not true. Now there are huge numbers of voters – Labour voters in Scotland, UKIP and Green voters in England – who have no MP to represent them. It’s not surprising that huge numbers of people don’t vote, and it’s worrying that more young people don’t vote. This situation needs to change.

Science in the UK as it operated under the EU holds out an example of what can be achieved when borders between nations start being erased. We need to take lessons from this, and probably a few from Babylon 5 while we’re at it, since even I’m too cynical to go for full-out Star Trek optimism.

Oh, yes, and Britain needs to stay in the EU. Somehow.

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