My friends I have been a little quiet of late, and those who have been reading recently will know why; the unthinkable happened and Britain voted to exit the European Union, a shock-wave that may well be rippling through the country you are reading this from right now. This news is huge, with UK politicians falling every day, trillions wiped from stock markets, the potential disintegration of Europe and uncertainty for millions of people. The country has been left divided, with the young and the old on opposite sides of the debate, the North vs. the South, London vs. England and Scotland and Northern Ireland vs England and Wales. For my part, I am sorry – this news hit me with a heavy heart and had I of even contemplated the result would have gone this way I would have done more. The European project to me was a seed of something much bigger – a way of living where every member of our species felt they had the opportunity to pursue personal betterment. An era where it is generally appreciated that as occupants of the biosphere we have far more in common with one another than we do different. I am left feeling locked on a small island of little significance, projecting an inward message out into a divided world. I do not give up hope and will be doing anything I can, as one of many dissatisfied Britons to make sure this decision is not the final one; but with reluctant submission I must concede the outlook does look stormy.
I could write at length and with passion about my stance on embracing diversity, celebrating multi-multiculturalism and a global if not galactic view on life but I shall not; in part as it brings me much sadness, but primarily because this site is for science. I wrote my six scientific reasons to remain ahead of the referendum, which spelled out just how important remaining was for science. Now, as the dust begins to settle we must salvage what we can and move forwards – we must protect the advancement of science in the only way we know how.
There are two potential outcomes from the result, the first being a global decline in science and the second being a decline in British science. The latter we can tolerate; we don’t do this for Britain but the former is the fear that should plague the heart of any scientist. It might sound far-fetched; perhaps even slightly arrogant to say that Brexit could cause a global decline in science but the chain of thought is not so illogical. Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world and has deep trade ties with all of the four above; bearish financial markets are sure to ensue in the short to medium term, with dwindling growth certain to put budget constraints on the Chancellor of the Exchequer along with foreign counterparts. Unfortunately, science is near the back of the pack when the beast of austerity rears it’s ugly head, leaving funding and opportunities vulnerable and exposed. When science is vulnerable, mankind is vulnerable.
There are a number of large problems facing the world today that people really do care about – the rise in terrorist acts, leadership races with candidates like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, financial instability in major economic markets; generally things that impact the life of everyday people within the life-span of living people and their children. Then there are certain events that will impact mankind, but in the medium-term, the long-term and the long-term. To name a few, in a rough chronology;
- A shortage of primary energy sources with no viable alternative to replace them;
- A change in global climate so severe man is not able to effectively control the impact on habitats;
- Warfare with weaponry so powerful that life on Earth is significantly compromised;
- Reduction in the ability of modern medicine to keep pace with the adaptability of viruses and bacteria causing global outbreaks of disease and population reductions;
- The impact of an asteroid on Earth rendering the planet uninhabitable;
- Contact with hostile alien lifeforms (don’t make this too Hollywood, please this could just be a single cell organism) which threatens the security of the planet;
- The end of the solar system; and
- The death of the universe.
Now while these are not all certain; they are all highly likely – with the ones in italics virtually certain unless we have grossly misunderstood a message from the universe. Notice that the scariest ones are the virtually certain ones? Something else that should be apparent in all of this – when these things come along, it’s no good all getting together in a “crisis room” and deciding what we should do, that is of little use. These problems can only be solved with the culmination of centuries of intelligent thought.
If you knew that a person was coming to kill you in 20 years, you would spend the next 20 years preparing yourself for war – or at least a good proportion of it and you would make sure when that person came, you were ready to give them everything you had. If mankind knows that angels of death approach, meaning almost certain death for intelligent life as we know it – why are we not working with such vigor? Well the answer is painfully obvious, the inherent lack of empathy and vision that plagues the human race. These things are just too far ahead of a humans short term perspective. This is not a pervasive issue in all of us – there are some that have made it their lifelong quest to understand and comprehend the world around us, and so pass this understanding to the next generation in the hope that they pick up the baton and complete the next round faster, so that when the time comes we greet these challenges with ease. This, is the grand and overarching quest of science and this is why we must protect the advancement of science.
Now my belief is that science will be permanently hampered by what has happened; but there will never be a way to prove this unless things get really bad, which we hope they do not. The probable scenario is that science continues to make great advancements, however in an alternate reality things could have been better; but for now we are confined to one linear reality. The task is to protect science as much as possible, in light of this poor choice made by 52% of 72.2% of the registered electorate of the United Kingdom. I have put together a set of hopes, wishes and practical steps that need to be taken to minimize any potential damage.
- Large European level projects like the ESA and CERN technically form legally separate entities. Whilst it may be questionable if we would have been invited if we were never in the EU, we have been and we have a seat at the table. We contribute a significant amount of funding to these schemes and this is unlikely to want to be sacrificed. It is vital that negotiations to keep us involved commence and that issues like this do not take a back seat to trade deals and alike.
- As scientists we must all ramp up our efforts to work efficiently and maximize international integration. This was far easier when we lived in what was virtually a borderless continent. It is going to be really key to keep a cool head when we make decisions now; if I am looking for somewhere to do a Masters and I have a choice of the UK or say Germany, it is imperative that the options are weighed to select the choice that is best for science. Yes there may well be red tape surrounding the German option, depending on the deal negotiated but we must fight any barriers placed in our way to always take the scientifically optimum path.
- There are a number of schemes that have emerged already where UK nationals would be able to study with reduced barriers to entry. I was touched on Tuesday, that on the same day Nigel Farage was spitting in the face of the EU, the Italian PM arrived with an olive branch to start to protect the concerns of EU students. You can read the article here, but I think it is important such ideas are met with enthusiasm – such schemes will help to dampen the
- Write to people – I have already written to Jo Johnson minister for science and technology expressing my concern – and there is an advantage here. As much negativity as I feel towards Boris Johnson, it looks like we are stuck with the political joker – and if the minister for science and technology can just reach out to his brother directly, things may be somewhat easier. None the less, major uncertainty remains as set out in this article here.
Finally there is an official statement from the government which details the official response so far.
As I leave you remember, the forces which seek to divide us are strong but nowhere near as strong as the forces we seek to unify. It is the natural state of the majority to seek to understand the world around us and better oneself – history shows the majority wins out; the path just isn’t always linear.