Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A flawed experiment: I'll vote Remain for science

A number of friends have tried to express their feelings about the upcoming Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, largely via social media. While I applaud my friends’ and colleagues’ efforts to bring their side of the issue to the table, I worry that the echo chamber of social media will be most adequate at simply confirming that I feel a similar way to many of my friends. However much I feel that writing this blog article is in any way better than just pasting it to Facebook, I am going to promote it on that platform and several others anyway once I have finished, so perhaps I’m just putting my Facebook rant on headed notepaper. Well, so be it then, here we go.

I normally try my best to distance myself from political debate – I unhappily admit that I often find many of today’s discussion topics divisive and ultimately upsetting, with a general feeling that my small vote or voice is a drop in the ocean of much stronger, ominous currents that are recklessly manipulated by a press that exerts undeserved power, and even does that irresponsibly.  I’m just not that good at this kind of debate, and maybe I should practice, but as a scientist it is all to easy to feel like I should just ‘get on with what I am good at’. However, with the Referendum upcoming I feel like there is just too much at stake to say nothing, and therefore I must say something for the small amount it is worth.

It is my belief that the right thing to do for the greatest number of people the United Kingdom is to remain a member of the European Union and so I will be voting to Remain on Thursday 23rd June.

The start of the argument for me is that scientific research strives to answer questions and challenges of science, food, water, medicine and health, etc. etc., and generally to improve the quality of life of people inside the UK and in the rest of the world. Therefore retaining a direct and honest connection with our European partners is crucial to making the most of the vast pool of opportunities that the continent provides. An exit would be a self-inflicted injury to our relationships with our key collaborators. Much science is funded internationally, with European collaborations very important in bringing together the best of expertise throughout the continent. By pooling together our resources, time, equipment, labs, money, people, etc., we become more than the sum of our parts. A prime example of a successful European collaboration is the Institut Laue Langevin centre for neutron scattering whose original partners were France, Germany and next the United Kingdom, with about 12 further associated nations. (Another great example is CERN.) Freedom of movement allows us to easily bring the best researchers to the UK, and allows UK researchers the chance to work overseas, to learn, to network, and to set up collaborations that feed back great science and experience. These are my friends, my colleagues, my collaborators. (There are many groups out there who have researched, phrased and argued this all much more eloquently than me, and good example is Scientists for EU). EU membership smooths and facilitates funding of major projects and allows us all to benefit from each other’s successes.

Again, researched and argued much more succinctly by many, many others out there, but the economic arguments seem elementary that staying within the EU is better for our economic health, not only because we trade so extensively with our EU neighbours (we’re not exactly self-sufficient on our island), but also because of the negative economic shock most of the quoted economists I have heard believe that the uncertainty Britain’s exit would cause. Now the latter should not be too much of a barrier – if we really want to make things better then let’s take the boat and rock it. The only problem is, in my perception of the debate, those who campaign to exit are not convincing me that they know what will happen to our good ship if the exit were to occur. I have heard countless predictions by experts like the International Monetary Fund (a word with clear negative connotations for some sections of society, the campaign appears to be teaching us) that the UK’s exit would degrade our economy – followed up by a statement that the Leave campaigner says the opposite. It never seems to be backed up by anything, though. Where are the heavy-hitting predictions of the benefits of leaving the EU? What are they even supposed to be? T-minus a few days and I am yet to understand what the plan is if we leave the EU. I have no idea whatsoever what the UK’s exit from the EU is meant to look like, or what it should achieve, therefore I have no confidence in it and will vote against it.

I’m wary of anything if I am uncertain of its origins, and I am deeply uncertain about how and why we are having this referendum, particularly now. That may be naivety, of which I can easily imagine I am a victim. I have also at times been deeply concerned by the tone of the campaigning, before realizing this was an opinion shared by many. My concern is that ‘yes or no’ is not now, nor ever was, the right question on Europe. I do not think that voting Remain should mean doing nothing. I believe in constant reform driven by elected governments, and if having our own currency and a place at the bargaining table is not a strong enough platform to work from, I must misunderstand what a special place in Europe should look like. It is my view that a relatively small number of powerful people would benefit from the UK’s exit from the EU and are utilizing our current delicate political situation (think instability in the Eurozone, think migrant crisis) to attempt to recruit vast swathes of the population, in particular the working class (who for my interpretation have been offered no demonstrable benefit at all to exiting the EU) in to their way of thinking. I’m afraid to say that I don’t think we understand enough to be effectively able to make a ‘yes or no’ judgement that will have any known or understood effect on the person on the street. We’ve been asked the wrong question. It is this mixture doubt about the true motivations, insufficient clarity of argument, and lacking body of (even predictive) evidence from the Leave campaign that convinces me to vote Remain. 

I have huge respect for both sides of the argument though, if a healthy and well-informed debate can occur. I’ve heartwarmingly seen a little bit of that genuine debate, against the backdrop of many more worrying parts. I just hope everyone takes the time to think long and hard before they cast their vote  in the Referendum.