Monday, 16 November 2015

Weird Science

The fight for independence from the EU (and subsequently for greater presence at the global tier) is taking place at multiple levels. This isn't just happening within the realm of the Westminster bubble - even though legacy media would desperately love it to be that way. Science has now stood up and decided that it has something to say on the matter.

When we think of the EU debate and whether we'd be better off leaving, it's fair to say that the average person in the street doesn't spare much thought for the modern day wizards of the science profession. Science is all about specialism; they talk in their own unique and frequently impenetrable language requiring specialist translators like Brian Cox to act as a modern day babel fish. That's not a swipe at science - it's just the way it needs to be in order for them to work at the level they do. From the public perspective, it’s a mystical world - meaning that the detail of both science and the supporting mechanisms are hard to scrutinise or qualify.

The realm of science tends to be politically benign, rarely turning up for a punch up. Politics is an ugly realm of ground fighting and scientists will see little logic in wasting energy wrestling in the dirt when they can be changing the world one discovery at a time. Yet when it comes to our membership of the EU, things appear to be completely different.

Never ever expecting to get a majority government at the 2015 election, the Conservative party made all kinds of generous and appealing offers to the public. Offers which would be negotiated away during formation of the next coalition. Offers which included an In/Out referendum on membership of the EU. On the 7th of May, Lynton Crosby delivered them a majority.

On the 22nd of May 2015, the world of science suddenly blinked and issued this public statement:

Scientists for EU putting their stake in the ground in the national press

To paraphrase - UK science (and associated industry) is enriched by the benefits of EU membership in terms of funding and collaboration. So say the undersigned, including founders of "Scientists for EU" Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson, along with other prominent scientists including Professor Tom Blundell (think Charles Dickens) and Lord Rees of Ludlow.

I'm not going to criticise them for making a stand on what they believe - to do so would diminish the type of world that I want to live in. However, if they're going to stick their oar in to the public debate, then we're entitled to examine their position and the issue in general.

In sensitive discussions, it's only right and proper that you declare your interests so that people can judge whether you're 'under the influence' so to speak. The public perception will be that these are British scientists arguing that Britain is stronger as a result of our EU relationship - yet it's been revealed by Guido that three members of the Science for EU board have external links to the EU - with Guido stating - "Scientists for EU receives no money from the EU”, but their board members do…

Personally, I think the real issue here is one of transparency and hence subsequently it becomes one of perceived integrity. Are they arguing for the sake of all British science or self interest? Scientists for EU will have to defend themselves on the matter. Personally, I don’t think there’s a conspiracy here, just poor judgement.

It's worth pointing out here that Scientists for EU do not represent all UK scientists. Not do I believe that all UK scientists think along the lines of 'Scientists for EU'. Take 'Scientists 4 Britain' on Twitter, who state that they are: "UK scientists concerned that the EU uses science for political gain." and go on to suggest "International cooperation can continue outside of #EU constraints." It will be interesting to see whether they act as a significant counterpoint to 'Scientists for EU' as the debate rolls on.

I believe there are three key questions that all scientists need to address in this debate. Without engaging in these questions they risk being relegated to political cheerleader status:

Point 1 - Will science funding take a hit?

In their statement, Scientists for EU have pointed out that they are party to ambitious EU science funding programmes. Horizon 2020 is one such programme which will represent a significant chunk of change to the scientific community, so naturally there are concerns about loss of access to all that money.

The stock response to this from the Leave base will be that we’re net contributors to the EU; it’s only our money that they’re throwing back at us anyway so we should have the funds to support science on Brexit.

Yes, if we were entirely divorced from the rest of the EU scientific community then UK science would need guarantees that they wouldn't lose out. In addition, the perception conveyed from Scientists for EU is that we get back more than we put in (and I'm not going to argue with this notion), so to avoid diminishing their funding level, we may have an additional gap that would need to be bridged.

What's important here is that the argument is examined thoroughly and the facts presented squarely so that the UK can make an informed decision on the matter. However, as I'm going to allude to in the next section, I don't believe that Brexit would actually mean separation from those money rich EU science programmes, so this may turn out to be a moot point.

Point 2 - Will collaboration take a hit?

It's a fair question. Although science studies what happens in a vacuum, it doesn't operate in one. Like all aspects of life, wider collaboration delivers benefits. The perception being driven by Scientists for EU is that Brexit will mean abandonment of EU science collaboration. So even if we could secure funding, what's going to happen in respect of our collaborative ability?

Here’s a video by Dr Mike Galsworthy (who leads Scientists for EU) talking about the impact of Brexit to UK science which attempts to address this issue:

It may well be that this was unscripted and off the cuff but there are some statements here that are worth examining:

“.. some issues, as in health, such as rare diseases where you just can’t study effectively within one country ..”

It’s worth mentioning here that the EU is effectively moving to become one country. If the larger the scope, the better - why stop at the EU level?

If we were to step outside of the EU, it would be very hard to buy back in to full membership and hold the position that we do now ...”

Surely this is a complex game of poker that needs to be played out between the UK and the EU. If the EU decide that as some petty form of punishment, the UK need to be excluded from science programmes by some degree then, based on their response, both UK and remaining EU members are going to be poorer for it. Important to note - it would be the EU enforcing isolation here. But this response would clearly demonstrate the value of the Scientists 4 Britain message - that the EU is using science as a tool for political gain.

It also ignores the fact that the UK holds some significant bargaining chips. e.g. Cambridge and Oxford to name but two. Would the EU be happy to cut off their nose in order to spite their face?

But in reality, that's not what S4EU appear to be saying. Look at the terms 'full membership' and 'hold the position that we do now'. So could there be some form relationship avaiable - just not quite what they have now?

At the moment, we’re winning more money from this common pot of science funds than any other country. We've just pipped Germany.

Again, UK science proves to be huge a national asset - that’s surely a bargaining point in any collaborative renegotiation - or is our obvious expertise worth nothing?

British science is world leading, not just because of British scientists but because of all the scientists in Britain - and we’ve got a lot of foreigners here and a good 14 or 15 percent are EU nationals...”

A quick point to make here - I take the suggestion by Scientists for EU to be that we’re going to lose that 15 percent of top notch scientists by coming out of the EU, thereby devaluing UK science and threatening our world leading status. Of course, freedom of movement of labour is a condition of EEA membership, not just EU. It is highly unlikely and unrealistic that the UK will leave the EEA on Brexit so those scientists will still have the right to be here. Continued EEA membership would also give us other benefits.

“..and we’ve got a lot of foreigners here and a good 14 or 15 percent are EU nationals and a lot of them don’t like the xenophobic tone at the moment...”

Oh dear! We seem to have stumbled from a legitimate discussion about the impact of Brexit on UK science to one of ad hoc, unqualified commentary on people's attitudes and feelings toward other non UK nations. I think bringing xenophobia (so often equated to racism) in to the debate is a low blow by Scientists for EU and I'd urge them to withdraw that comment as it doesn't help advance discussion on the matter at all.

Interestingly enough, the video is hosted on the 'European Movement UK' YouTube channel. This would seem to be the very same organisation highlighted by Guido above in his report.

What’s not being mentioned here is the ERA (European Research Area). It’s important to acknowledge that funding programmes such as Horizon 2020 are open to EEA members as well as EU. I suspect that currently EU members have much more (perhaps all) of the say in the direction of that funding and so continued EU membership will be touted as ‘the only way’. To put it another way, the real fear is about loss of influence not loss of access to collaborative science or associated funding. I can’t help but wonder whether adding Britain’s scientific voice to the EEA side of the fence would give it enough weight to argue some right of direction. Quid pro quo.

Point 3 - Is Science greater than democracy?

Ultimately what sticks in the craw, from my perspective at least, is the question above.

The truth of the matter is that Brexit could mean significant changes for UK science funding and collaboration and I can’t tell you that it’s going to be easy or that somehow there will be any substantial overall benefit to UK science. Freedom of movement shouldn’t be the issue here, it’s the unknowns around funding, collaboration and influence that will need effort to resolve.

For many people engaged in this debate, the real fight is one about true democratic accountability. With every passing treaty, we’ve handed significant powers to the EU without once being asked whether we’re happy with this dilution of UK parliamentary democracy. It’s horrendously undemocratic so why should the people of the UK accept it?

When you ask this question and then contrast it with the stance of Scientists for EU - the question then becomes ‘Why do we need political union in order to facilitate scientific collaboration?’

To accept this is reasonable is to play in to the hands of the EU’s wider political ambitions.


The Scientists for EU site needs to do a lot to justify the stance it's taking. Parading the faces and names of prominent scientists in front of us in HTML5 without addressing the detail of the debate doesn't get it favourable peer review in my book.

If they're serious about their position, points one and two should be put under the microscope and properly argued and debated.

As for the third point - there's some real soul searching to be done here by Scientists for EU. Even if the first two points can be argued away, they have to stop and think, are there any limits to what should be done for the sake of science? Where is the morality in handing over hard won democratic rights, just to facilitate the ease of science funding and collaboration? Are they advocating a technocracy where the rights of non-scientific members of the population are demeaned purely because it suits the lifestyles, professions and outcomes of the chosen few?

In my opinion, to stand up and declare such open and unquestionable support for the EU in this debate is tantamount to announcing the primacy of the needs of the scientific community. Without tactful consideration for the wider debate, they will further alienate science (and hence the appreciation of science) from the public.


  1. Thank you ... a detailed look at the whole "UK science" issue in the EU referendum ... very useful.

  2. Thank you ... a detailed look at the whole "UK science" issue in the EU referendum ... very useful.