Sunday, 27 March 2016

The EU Delusion - A Dangerous Misuse of Science

"Science (noun) - A seemingly magical, yet entirely logical evidence based practice which, somehow,  allows itself to be used by the political class to further undemocratic federalist integration"

Great sparking scientific balls of steel are mandatory in this referendum

I've blogged previously on the matter of Science and the EU referendum. Whilst all sides should be allowed the right to have their say, my concerns regarding Scientists4EU are founded in their make-up and approach:
  • Board members with links to EU money (link)
  • Actively dragging the sacrosanct world of science in to the grubby world of politics to take an activist stance.
  • Attributing an inflated sense of importance to the role of the EU in UK science.
  • Inaccurately inferring a doom-laden future of isolation for UK science if we left.

It was pleasant to read some thoughtful and even handed analysis of the situation here in the 'EU and Europe' blog 'Science Part 1'.

The essence to take away from this is that there are pros and cons, but the reality of science in a post Brexit world is not the Hindenburg-esque tragedy that has been presented to date.

EU funding represents only circa 3% of UK expenditure of R&D. EU science funding programs are open to nations outside of the EU, such as Norway & Switzerland - so we should expect the same access. At most, it seems what's at risk is a level of influence regarding the direction of EU science programs, and that's not taking in to account any bargaining power we may have considering the prestige of our own institutions.

I find the high profile alarmist rhetoric coming from Scientists4EU as out of character for the profession - more dubious theoretics than evidence based analytics.

A microcosmic version of the EU

Let's change the scale for one moment and re-imagine the whole matter of the EU, not at the level of national governance but on a smaller scale. Imagine that, for some reason, your university provided funds to a larger 'club'  representing a body of pan-european academic / scientific institutions, limited in number. The promise of membership would be that it would allow for greater cooperation and provide a mechanism for scientific interchange and collaboration. Rather than run bilateral arrangements, the club would arch over all matters and orchestrate them, handing back some of the money to members in order to fund directed research, supporting a common yet unobtrusive good.

However, in exchange for said membership, it would demand a say in how the universities were run. A small say at first - but over time, and without further consulting any of the patrons or students, the governors would hand over more and more of the running authority to 'The Club' so that in time, it would no longer be a club but a bureaucracy that had the final say on the majority of all important university decisions. The governors would still be there and the university would still have a vice-chancellor with a colourful salary, yet the bureaucracy would ultimately steer the ship where decisions could be made 'for the common good'.

Seemingly benign at first, it would start becoming evident that this emerging arrangement would have some unexpected consequences, directly impacting everyone concerned.

The bureaucracy initially allow anyone of similar academic merit to come and collaborate, which makes some sense but, surprisingly, in a move described as a fundamental scientific freedom, they change the arrangement to allow absolutely anyone to go to any scientific institution they want (regardless of previous merit or achievement) to compete for funding and to use the available resources. No previous financial contribution necessary - in fact, those without the ability to support their research must have at least a basic level of funding allocated by the national institution itself.

Further still, 'The Bureaucracy' would then enlarge membership, to bring in a whole swathe of new institutions of somewhat lesser standing than the existing members. As a reward, existing members would have their voice in scientific policy making reduced to a small marginal percentage and their right to veto removed, along with a reduction in any rebate.

Naturally the best institutions with the stellar reputations would become a beacon, attracting all and sundry. No heartfelt protests about overcrowding or sharing of limited infrastructure resources would change a thing, because as far as 'The Bureaucracy' are concerned, it's a freedom which cannot be denounced. And besides, anyone complaining about the situation would be looked on with suspicion as 'someone who doesn't like others', neatly cutting them down to size and shutting up the debate.

Regardless as to who governs the university, or who runs it - none of them would actually have any control over the things that mattered. You could sack them / change them - but it's still 'The Bureaucracy' making the decisions at arms length in the background.

To top it off, regardless of what was said at the beginning of the arrangement with 'The Bureaucracy' or 'The Club' as it would have been known then - it's evident that all scientific institutions are to become one entity governed centrally with all national institutions becoming mere branches or branch campuses.

How would they react?

Universities and scientific institutions would be the first to scream if this happened - if their prestige and reputation were swallowed up in to the conch like corpus of some supra-academic body, eviscerating the very essence that made them unique and hollowing out the very spirit that ignited discovery, inspiration and growth.

Yet the very same people, so focussed down the lens of the microscope staring at their own microcosmic environment appear to disregard the wider fundamental arguments that underpin this entire debate - democracy, accountability, sovereignty - in order to please their own narrow interests with the mere 3% of national science funding that the EU represents.

To paraphrase the whole debate - Scientists4EU are attempting to use the revered and, to non-academics, impenetrable world of science to persuade the UK that they should endorse continued membership of an institution that has: continually promised it will not become a federal entity, yet is hurtling towards becoming one; continually undermined national sovereignty in a piecemeal manner, removing the national right to self governance without once putting the matter to the people in the last forty years; established a law making oligarchy who are obliged by oath not to represent national interest and are just as divorced from the people when it comes to accountability for their actions.

And all this - for the mere matter of influence on 3% of national science funding.


Science is stumbling in to the political arena like a giant oaf, shielded by it's unimpeachable mysticism and launching from its lofty vantage point of unquestionable benevolence (we'll ignore the horrors of the atom bomb and thalidomide - or the idiocy of Piltdown Chicken for that matter - because science can do no wrong). Propelled by the steam of its new era 'D-ream' like rock stardom, it wields its reputation like a blunt instrument, blindly sweeping aside that which detracts from its own aims and ambitions.

By analogy, if UK science were the sex organ in a body, it wouldn't perceive the harm in getting all the blood it needed to stand to attention to its proudest extent, regardless of whether it robbed the brain of what it required to think straight. They are becoming that insular and self centred in this matter.

Ultimately, the question that cannot be satisfactorily answered by Scientists4EU is this: Why is political union (including the loss of national sovereignty and the dramatic dilution of democracy) necessary for scientific collaboration?

If that question cannot be put to bed, then Scientists4EU are guilty of allowing their once noble profession to be used as a crowbar for the advancement of political federal interests. Probably not something Newton envisaged or something which we, as a nation watching our democracy slip away, should tolerate.

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