A statement on the advancement of science

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;

  1. A shortage of primary energy sources with no viable alternative to replace them;
  2. A change in global climate so severe man is not able to effectively control the impact on habitats;
  3. Warfare with weaponry so powerful that life on Earth is significantly compromised;
  4. 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;
  5. The impact of an asteroid on Earth rendering the planet uninhabitable;
  6. 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;
  7. The end of the solar system; and
  8. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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29 responses to “A statement on the advancement of science

  1. As you say Joe, react in a positive way, I think that’s all we can do. A vote seems pretty black and white at the time. Very polarising and divisive. But I know for a fact from the people I know that for every right-wing racist that would have voted Leave there are many, many more Leave supporters that just voted for change. And change is not a bad thing. A vote does not change our values. If it means we have to find new ways to cooperate and work with other countries then that’s what we have to do. If it means that we have be more vigilant and proactive about racism and right-wing groups who will be feeling a boost, then that’s what we have to do. If it means we have to sell our One World view better to the doubters and listen to them and address their concerns, then this is what we have to do. Doesn’t mean it will be easy 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes I agree that many voted for leave for noble reasons, I just happen to disagree with them but such is politics. I agree with you though that the only way is to try and make the best of what I consider a bad situation – there have always been barriers in my life to engaging with science, but none of these barriers seem to have stopped me just yet! Thank you for your visit and thoughtful words

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  2. As a seasoned scientist I feel I know one thing, scientist work together, where ever, I’ll be blunt when it comes to science I don’t give a toss about my label, English, British, European, Earthling, things get done, because they have too, scientists are human, EU in or out, as it happens I prefer the latter, I have my reasons, in the scheme of things it doesn’t much matter, the ‘big’ things get done, every scenario, an opportunity for some, writing letters to those tweaking transient positions, yes if you want to, better though to make a difference, and speaking from experience nothing much happens because you want it, things happen because you focus on the need, and do what has to be done and some. Good luck to you you clearly have a passion for science , and passion tends to win over political tinkering.

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    • I do agree that science always finds a way – and I also don’t regard myself as anything but a member of planed Earth but I must say studying is far easier when you are paying home fees rather than international fees… unfortunately international fees are a major barrier which stops a lot of global mixing early on in scientists careers. I do think however that it is wrong to say things don’t happen because you want them to – things do happen when a collective body of people want them to (a democracy) and the only way to ensure the collective body of people want them to happen is to ensure that they are in the public eye. So for that reason I think science must get involved with some of the politics

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      • Wrong is a word I’ll rarely use, most everything is conditional, hardly anything absolute, the public eye is blinkered and as you’ve seen being in it doesn’t necessarily meet perceived need. I’ll leave it there, respect your view, and live with mine.

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  3. I agree wholeheartedly and cannot conceive of a time where I will not be considered ‘European’ as well as ‘British’ but the long term concerns really are quite as you describe. I have also felt quite angry because ultimately, as Plato writes in The Republic (I think) that our quest for liberty enslaves us all: you ask a populace to vote and actually some will be ignorant of the issue, the consequences and much more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes i totally agree with you – it is such a shame what a monumental effort people are going to have to go to, to get to a situation where things are never going to be as good… such a waste of good resources it really didn’t need to be this way

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  4. Science needs a moral direction unlimited research with limited money is madness. So a list of priorities needs to be considered . Surely antibiotic resistance is far more important than all the others apart from climate. If we don’t supply money to drug companies we may soon have no scientists and basic operations will be impossible. Let’s hope we have time enough to discover dark matter of get to Mars it would be a fitting epitaph.
    Add to the objections the bias use of science to favour the rich nations while five hundred million Indians defecate in the open. Delicate heart operations are being performed while people have no basic hygiene.
    Science is not just about enquiry it must be applied to benefit mankind or it is worthless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It depends on your timescale you assign to your viewpoint. When deciding priorities there are three factors; impact if it happens, when it would/could happen and probability of occurrence. I don’t think you have correctly identified the boundary between science and society. The people who worked on heart operations, the research and the practice did not get rich. With a few exceptions scientists generally don’t get that rich from ideaa; mainly if they write books etc. Science provides the idea for free. The example you give of idea is an underdeveloped economy who cannot afford the same services as western economies. While these were invented by science, it is socioeconomic failure. To give you another example to highlight the distinction – should I blame the farmers in the UK because they can produce food while others starve? No – I should blame the systems which stop people having access. That isn’t science that is society.

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      • You make some good points but scientists must take their place in the moral battle. It is nice and comfortable to shovel the blame elsewhere ; think of the colossal cost of the Haddon super collider scientists and technicians run the whole thing. Systems are run by people and the world has a pyramid of wealth we are all trying to climb. I’m not suggesting scientists are any worse than the rest of us but they have an enormous wealth lavished on their pursuits. We have already had dire warnings from the heath experts on antibiotic resistance ; that genius Fleming warned us when he discovered penicillin a long time ago now. I believe science has run amok because of its reputation it is being abused .
        Space research and weaponry are the drivers not the well-being of the human race.

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      • Science is a huge part of modern society in terms of investment and it cannot shrug off the blame onto systems. That genius Fleming warned us about antibiotic resistance when he discovered penicillin. Space and weaponry have enormous cost, and seem to be an obsession.
        I do not believe scientists or politicians are any worse than the rest of us but they are in a position to speak out instead of being used in pointless pursuits. Part of the problem is science thinks it is exempt and research of any sort is unquestionably good. There is no boundary between any activity and society we are on the space ship earth and our survival is not guaranteed. Martin Rees thinks we have a fifty fifty chance of surviving this century. I do not think we will be wiped out but we could be fragmented and return to the dark ages.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think we are taking the cost of say CERN as an absolute; which I don’t think is correct. If you look at the relative cost it is much lower; as an amount on it’s own it seems large but when you look at it as a fraction of the amount the countries that fund it spend on welfare it really is beyond tiny. In addition; it may please you to know that increasing amounts of space projects are becoming privately funded. I am not sure your comment about science feeling exempt is really fair/valid either – the process of getting research funding is VERY hard; you have to prove the benefit, it is highly competitive and there is almost no personal salary. As for antibiotic resistance my knowledge is weak; but I would have thought the incentive structures are there for the private pharmaceutical R&D giants? After all there are vast amounts of money to be made for solving the problem

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      • Professor Sally Davis has a warning video on tube . By the year 2050 ten million will die each year and the cost will be 100 trillion dollars per year. Getting funding is hard because there are far too many fingers in the pie. We need to prioritise abandon space research in favour of climate solutions . Priority in the household is food and warmth not a telescope on the roof or a new car outside. Every scientist will fight for his or her own super important research so we need an action plan drawn up by experts. I’m just a worried uneducated layman but I’m retired and I have time to look around and to listen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Whilst I have not seen Prof Davis’ work or know much about her – you must be careful stating things as fact. She has said, based on a set of assumptions and predictions she thinks that is the most likely outcome. There is no certainty with the future, only different probabilities of different events. The most efficient allocation of resources in any economic model is competition – fingers out the pie is a dictatorship. I wasn’t saying the competition is bad I was just saying that it exists. I agree we need to focus on the issues of today; but we must not ignore the issues of tomorrow. It is an inherent failure of the human race that they cannot invest in timescales much beyond their own generation, or perhaps the next. If every generation only invests in their own problems, I assure you the day will come when an issue exists so big that it cannot be solved in a generation and then we are gone. I love humanity. I want investment in today, tomorrow, 10 years, 50 years and a billion. A diversified portfolio lets few down.

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      • You are right I must be careful but remember I’m an uneducated layman , aged 75 and retired , so I must rely on the media and my contact with the experts in their fields. I believe those big issues you speak of are already with us and perhaps we need to look at the way finances are being allocated, sometimes dictatorship is needed to guide progress that benefits everyone. The Club of Rome has been campaigning for limits to growth for decades and competition won’t limit growth but only encourage the use of resources and hence contamination.
        Remember what the unlimited growth of the internal combustion engine has done to the world’s atmosphere.

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