Government “Future Partnership” paper – collaboration on science and innovation

Scientists and the academic world predominantly supported remaining in the EU during last year’s campaign. Some of them are still most reluctant to come to terms with Brexit, fearing that our educational and scientific institutions will be out on a limb, unable to collaborate with their European colleagues while being  denied access to the sources of funding which they enjoyed prior to Brexit.

This latest Government paper, entitled a “Future Partnership” paper as opposed to the “position papers” which came out two weeks ago, attempts to provide some reassurance.

Whether it will succeed is another matter. The paper begins by cataloguing our collaborative ventures and lists some of the non-EU bodies through which collaboration will still be possible on Brexit. Then follows the usual wish list, summarised by Paragraph 13:-

“It is the UK’s ambition to build on its uniquely close relationship with the EU, so that collaboration on science and innovation is not only maintained, but strengthened. Therefore, as part of the new, deep and special partnership, the UK will seek an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU that will support and promote science and innovation across Europe both now and in the future.”

Great stuff, but the desire to continue co-operation is nuclear research and the EU’s space programme is just that – a a desire.   It points to non-EU participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme.  “We want to continue to work closely with these EU bodies” is a repeated message but will the EU want to work closely with us? At the moment, discussions on areas such as this seem a long way off. Recent statements by Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief negotiator, suggest that until there is some significant movement on resolving the issue of avoiding a “hard” Irish border,  the scope of talks is not going to be broadened.

My old teacher is spinning in his grave

I read an article in Nature journal yesterday.

Now, I don’t want you to run away with the idea that I spend my time browsing the academic scientific literature. I don’t. I prefer history. No, this article was pointed out to me by a scientist friend who was apoplectic about it.

And with reason.

Remember that Nature is regarded by many as the premier scientific journal in the world. It was founded in 1869 and prides itself on being the most cited journal on record. Scientists compete ferociously to get published in it, knowing that their work will be taken seriously as a result.

But the article I will draw your attention to is entitled “Scientists should not resign themselves to Brexit“. It is written by a chap called Colin MacIlwain, a freelance journalist with a degree in “Economics and Social Change in Britain”. You can read the whole thing HERE if you like, but to save you the trouble I will summarise. He says that Brexit will be bad for science, that scientists are jolly clever people, that science is very important and that therefore Brexit must be stopped to make life easier for scientists.

I will leave it up to you to decide if a decision voted for by more than 17 million people should be overturned for the convenience of a few thousand working in one particular industry; I’m more interested in the column itself.

Nowhere does the author offer any evidence that Brexit will be bad for science. Will UK universities suddenly stop doing science? Will vast numbers of scientists be made redundant? Will British industry stop doing research to develop new products? Facts? Data? Nope, none of that.

Instead he falls back on emotional feelings. “The mood in science departments is universally grim”, we are told. And other people are upset too: “It isn’t just EU-born students, postdocs and staff who are unsettled: countless spouses and offspring feel dejected and unwanted in the United Kingdom, too.”

Again, no evidence or data. We just have to take the author’s word for it that a few thousand people are feeling a bit upset.

Helpfully, the author makes his own feelings very clear. He tells us that there was a “loose coalition of dissenters, doubters and right-wing jackals who voted to leave Europe”. Has the author gone out and surveyed a representative sample of Leave voters to reach this conclusion? Apparently not. He is just telling us his views.

But does Mr MacIlwain want to know about our views or our feelings? Obviously not. “Commenting on this article is currently unavailable” we are firmly told.

Sadly this attitude is all too prevalent among the more extremist remainers. They consider themselves better than we Brexiteers, or at least better able to understand the complex issues involved in Brexit. They sneer at us – I particularly like that bit about “right-wing jackals”. They believe that their views should take precedence over ours. They despise the democracy that puts great issues into the hands of the people.

Well, they are entitled to their views. What I find puzzling is that a prestige scientific journal such as Nature should publish an article that is so short on fact and so long on feelings and opinions.

When I was a lad my science teacher was a strict old boy. He caned more of our class than all the other teachers put together. And he had a saying that he drummed into us endlessly. “Facts! Facts! Facts! Science is about facts. Leave your emotions at the door, boy. Here we deal with Facts!”

How he must be spinning in his grave.