Monthly Archives: June 2016

My Case for Remaining

I realise I haven’t posted here in a while. Sorry about that. I’ve been busy. I’m back to talk about the EU, though. This was going to be a Facebook status, but it ballooned to 1400 words, so I felt it deserved a blog post. Here it goes:

Polling has consistently shown that leave is winning in this referendum. With less than a week until polls open, I’m hoping to reach out to any undecided people who follow me: Please, I beg you, please vote to REMAIN in the European Union on the 23rd June.


I believe people are intrinsically self-interested, and ‘principles’ are just ways for people to justify conclusions they’ve already reached, so I’m going to lay my cards on the table here: my research group is EU funded. I’m UK funded, but most of my group critically depends on a huge ERC grant, so I can’t really help but be pro-EU. But self-interest is the driving force behind this whole campaign, so I think it’s fair. UK voters are being asked by both sides to consider “what’s in it for me?” The rest of the continent (who very clearly stand to lose out if we leave) can get buggered. In that spirit, here’s my case for remaining:
Pretty much everything I’m going to say will be through the lens of working as a UK scientist, whilst touching on wider issues. This isn’t just the result of me reading a bunch of articles on The Guardian, either. This is the result of months of talking to scientists about what they think about this issue, and directly experiencing these effects as a first-year PhD student in London.
First of all, a vote to remain would save my group a lot of uncertainty and fear about our future as a research group. If you don’t care about the future of exoplanetary research this may not matter to you, but to the people I see at work every day, it matters a lot. Their story isn’t unique, either. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of UK science is EU funded in some way.
One of the most recent group photos of the ExoMol group. We come from all over the UK, the EU, and beyond.
One of the most recent group photos of my research group: ExoMol. We come from all over the UK, the EU, and beyond.
Crucially, EU funding for UK science is INCREASING, as opposed to UK funding which was frozen from 2010-2015 (we were relieved with this at the time — most public bodies got off much worse), then promised a miserly increase to catch up with inflation from 2016-2020. Of course, the UK is a net contributor to the EU (duh. One of the whole points of the EU is so richer countries can contribute to the development of poorer ones), so in theory a vote to leave could free up more money to devote to UK science. But let’s face it, even in the most optimistic economic forecasts after we leave (i.e. the ones where our cash isn’t sucked into a black hole, as is already happening), where is the EU cash going to go?
“Reassuringly,” leave campaigners have promised money WILL go to UK science, but they’re not in charge, Cameron and Osborne are, and they’re both promising that leaving will mean cuts, cuts, cuts (i.e. business as usual). Maybe they won’t be in charge in a few weeks. Then who will? A Tory who actually cares about public spending? Come on. Some leave-leaning Tories have suddenly decided they don’t like the idea of another round of cuts after we leave. Corbyn was (unusually…) eloquent when he expressed bemusement at their “Damascene conversion.” I don’t buy it.
Politicians across the spectrum are united for remaining.
Politicians across the spectrum are united for remaining.
But, in the immortal words of Jessie J, “it’s not [all] about the money (money money).” If only 10% of UK science money comes from the EU, why do 85% of UK scientists support remain? It’s because we benefit from the very thing the majority of leave voters are voting on: immigration. Current UK immigration laws for non-EU countries are, in my view, outrageous. The fact that there’s a WAGE LIMIT on potential migrants is absurd. It’s also terrible for UK science because many early career science jobs fall below that threshold, meaning institutions have to go out of their way to prove the potential migrant in question is absolutely vital for their job. That can be difficult. It’s not a perfect system, and many of the best and brightest who absolutely should be here have been frozen out. Frankly, it’s a system designed to keep out poor people, and early career scientists aren’t exactly rolling in money. EU free movement makes the lives of every UK scientist much, much easier. It also goes both ways, with UK and other EU institutions able to more easily hire brilliant scientists from across the continent.
Scientists for EU represents the views of almost every UK scientist.
Scientists for EU represents the views of the vast majority of UK scientists.
And there’s more. It also makes collaboration easier. We can (and do!) set up bilateral research coordination agreements with non-EU states, but they must be done on a case-by-case basis, and if you want more than one other country involved at once, it’s a pain in the ass. CERN, ESO, and other massive, multi-state, non-EU projects do exist, of course, but it’s in spite of, not because of, the current state of non-EU international collaboration. The EU provides a framework for allowing collaboration between (in theory) up to 28 countries at once. Sure, we COULD negotiate bilaterals with every EU country when we leave, but you can’t deny that’s a much less desirable option than the current one. You have to promise us something much better in return for that.
And I don’t think we have been promised anywhere near enough in return. If we’re losing out on money, our access to skilled non-UK scientists, and the ease with which we can collaborate with our neighbours, what are we getting? The promise of setting up more research agreements with Australia, Brazil, China, the US. Great, fine. Sounds good. But none of those places are right next door. You may think in an internet age that shouldn’t matter, but it DOES.
I’ve seen it first-hand. It’s much, much easier to collaborate with countries closer to you than further away, even non-EU ones like Switzerland. For one thing: flying further is still more expensive. That’s not changing any time soon. When looking at conferences to go to on my travel grant, I can maybe go to two non-European conferences in my entire PhD, but I’m planning on going to two French conferences in the next MONTH! That’s not an EU thing, that’s a “they’re literally right next door” thing. We absolutely SHOULD be making it as easy as possible to work with our neighbours.
We should, of course, be making it easier to work with our non-neighbours, too. If we want to collaborate more with growing sciences bases like those in the East, we shouldn’t do that by arbitrarily making it harder to work with established nearby ones. If the EU is stopping us from easily arranging research agreements with the US or whatever, let’s bring the case for that to the EU to get them to change, instead of just abandoning it altogether. You may think we can’t. I’m not as pessimistic about the state of EU reform.
Front left to right: Lord Alf Dubs, Chuka Umunna MP, Andy Slaughter MP (my local MP), all Labour, all out campaigning. (I’m there too!)
I’ve set out my self-interested case for remaining, but, as I’ve tried to stress, it’s about more than just me. This affects all of UK, EU, and global science. That’s why so many of us support remaining. The “Scientists for EU” group is a massive, diverse group of many scientists for all over the political spectrum. Some are ideologues who love the EU (far too much in my opinion), some are just self-interested like me. Scientists for Britain, meanwhile, is run by a former UKIP candidate and neoliberal economic ideologue. If that isn’t a microcosm of the whole debate I don’t know what is.
I haven’t touched at all on the sovereignty and democracy issues surrounding the EU (I’m already over 1k words). I think there’s some merit to them, but they’re way overblown (you want more democracy? Abolish the House of Lords. More sovereignty? Let’s get rid of the IMF whilst we’re at it). If your primary reason for voting to leave rests somewhere there, firstly you’re in the minority; this is an immigration referendum (I’ve seen as much on the doorstep), but secondly I can’t really say much to stop you, even if I think you’re misguided. All I can do is convince you that I will lose out mightily if we vote to leave, and hope you consider that when casting your vote. Thank you for your time.