Thursday, July 28, 2016

Why, in politics, science is about more than science

This is a longer version of a comment in the latest issue of Research Fortnight. It took a while, and inevitably events have somewhat moved on. But I'd argue that the same basic issue remains: scientists need to look at (and worry about) the broader issues, not just the immediate ramifications for funding and employment (extremely important though those are). They shouldn't regard this as a done deal that they now just have to make the best of, less still accept the rhetoric of "the people have spoken". There is too much at stake. With that in mind, I was pleased to lend a bit of help in getting together Nature's collection of reflections on lessons to be learned.


I cannot believe that even those 12-14 percent of British scientists who – if Nature’s poll is reliable – voted for the UK to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June could have doubted that there would be some short-term harm to science. I suspect that they will also not have questioned the predictions, now amply confirmed, from economists that the markets would suffer a rather catastrophic shock. Those scientists could, after all, hardly do their job without some faith in expert opinion, even if that is how some politicians apparently now do theirs.

One must assume that the “pro-Leave” scientists calculated that this short-term pain would produce long-term gain – if not necessarily for British science, then at least for other important aspects of how the nation functions. I feel rather confident in asserting that none will have welcomed the current upsurge in racism and xenophobia unleashed in Britain. It’s scarcely less hard to imagine that they will have questioned the value of openness and freedom of movement to the kind of culture that enables science to thrive. And I would be astonished if any foresaw the farcical chaos and irresponsibility that has ensued since the referendum among the leaders of the Leave campaign, and the climate of total political, economic and social uncertainty it has engendered.

Perhaps there was some calculus in all of this that made sense to them. It should go without saying that they had every right to act on that calculation.

To the 80 percent or so of scientists who preferred the UK to remain in the EU, however, this maths is probably rather mysterious. Perhaps there is some rational case for imagining that science, and more implausibly still the economy, would weather the storm and emerge the better for it. Certainly, EU involvement in British science was not an unalloyed benefit, just as it was not for British industry, agriculture or public policy. So drastic a surgical solution to the problems seems reckless, but the case for it is not self-evidently crazy.

Yet while I am prepared, even eager, to think that Leave voters among scientists made their decision for reasons quite unconnected to the racist, deceitful, anti-intellectual tenor of the campaign that swayed public opinion, it baffling to me how anyone could have persuaded themselves that such a vote would not strengthen that platform and those who stood on it. I am ready to doubt that it added anything to the convictions of Leave scientists that their position was endorsed by Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Rupert Murdoch and the English Defence League. I’m genuinely puzzled how they found considerations that overrode any qualms about keeping such company. I would be interested to know the answer.

Still, the predicted damage has been done, and continues to be done, and will be done for some time to come. That many of the major promises of the Leave campaign have now evaporated, several of its claims are (and always were) transparently false, and its main ringleader Boris Johnson has absconded leaves us entitled to call the campaign nothing short of a hoax. What we can’t know is whether the hoax won the day or whether the revolt was inevitable in any case, given the degree of understandable political disaffection in the nation.

Either way, British science has been made a political football. It isn’t reasonable to expect that the fate of UK research should have featured in the deliberations of people struggling to make a living in communities long abandoned by the political class. Yes, of course the economic strength of a nation depends vitally on the vigour of its scientific and technological capability, but it is the job of politicians to know that. That science simply played no part in the referendum debate is neither surprising nor a meaningful cause for lament. The problem, of course, is that this is precisely why referenda that have major implications for such issues, yet without the remotest prospect of those being taken into consideration for the vast majority of the population, are so dangerous and unwise.

Most European scientists won’t need to be told this by their British colleagues. I’m sure my experience so far – of pretty much universal sympathy at the harm wrought by political games, and of determination to work together to safeguard the European scientific enterprise – is the common one. This won’t – or shouldn’t – be just an exercise in damage limitation, but also an opportunity for science to set an example of international cooperation and trust in the face of rising nationalism and bigotry. The good will is immensely heartening. Many European scientists seem to recognize that what has been revealed in the UK – a distrust of the European project coupled to fears about immigration – is and has for some time been a Europe-wide concern.

What is to be done? British scientists have called for guarantees both that the science budget will be untouched and that the security of European scientific staff and students at UK universities will be affirmed. You’d expect no less – though sadly, you could also have rightly predicted that no such assurances would be forthcoming while the government is leaderless and in utter turmoil. In the meantime, some non-British researchers at UK universities are already contemplating seeking jobs abroad where access to EU funding is undiminished, and recruitment of overseas researchers to British universities has been immediately placed at risk. The UK’s major scientific bodies and universities will have to be relentless and strident with demands for clear and urgent commitments here.

That, however, is not enough. The prospect now of British governance finally being taken in hand by serious politicians, with whom scientists might ultimately imagine negotiating terms and conditions in a systematic, rational way, is reassuring. But it also risks blinding us to the fact that the situation arose in the first place from an unprecedented and pathological paroxysm. Even those scientists who voted Leave must surely concede that the day was carried not because of any reasoned arguments that could be brought to the table but in spite of them. However valid the howl of fury behind it, the referendum outcome did not emerge from a political debate in any meaningful sense of the word. Facts and expert informed opinions were bypassed by demagogues and press barons able to manipulate public opinion in a way that is now going to hit the disenfranchised and deprived sectors of the population – those most in favour of leaving the EU – the hardest. That is why some commentators have justifiably called the referendum “the end of politics”.

To say as much is of course easily portrayed as the condescending conviction of educated elites that the masses don’t know what is good for them. Frankly, there is too much at stake to accept that kind of disingenuousness. What is truly condescending is to pretend that people who were lied to, relentlessly fed false promises and fake scares, and egged on by fickle opportunists have been given the opportunity to make a real choice.

I would fully understand if those who have carefully considered the options and decided that on balance Britain should not be a part of the EU were to consider it a profound perversion of democracy now to declare that they have made the “wrong” decision and to ignore it. The question is how far we can turn a blind eye to abuses of the system. The Leave vote was swayed by far more than the usual share of electioneering lies, by key promises that never had any prospect of being fulfilled, and by leaders who had no real expectation of or plans for victory – foremost among them Johnson, who is now seen to have lacked any real commitment to the cause in the first place. There has been no precedent in British politics in living memory, and the British parliament needs to think very carefully about pretending it is just politics as normal. When even a leading and widely respected Conservative peer (Michael Heseltine) calls Johnson’s actions “contemptible”, you know something serious is afoot. How dishonourable does the political process need to get before it becomes improper to honour it?

The campaign by Johnson and his one-time ally (now his Brutus) Michael Gove – who dismissed economic experts by comparing himself with Einstein – was an astonishingly audacious con trick. Arguably the most troubling aspect is that, in its cheap populism and shameless contempt for facts, it has set a precedent for a potentially even more disastrous “post-political” deception on the other side of the Atlantic.

This much now seems incontrovertible. Scientists of all persuasions should be deeply concerned about these trends, because they threaten the values on which a reasoning society is based. Historians and others, including the former head of the Church of England Rowan Williams, have noted parallels in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns with the manipulation of disaffection, nationalism and prejudice in Germany in 1933. (The use of imagery in the UK Leave campaign with clear echoes of Nazi racist propaganda was one of the more visible and explicit of those comparisons.) On that earlier occasion, scientists and most other academics decided that their priority had to be simply to “safeguard German science”, rather than to recognize any obligation to broader principles of social justice and informed debate. The result was that they were rendered impotent and easily controlled by their new rulers.

The fact that the UK is evidently not about to become a far right nation is not the point. It is imperative to restore a proper political process before that prospect is even on the horizon. We must hope it does not become the point either in Austria, although the Brexit vote casts a shadow now on the impending re-run of the election narrowly lost by the far-right Freedom Party. The anti-EU far right in Frances, Denmark and the Netherlands are emboldened and sharpening their knives now.

There is no painless solution. To blindly pursue the Brexit route will be unquestionably harmful to Britain in the short term – it has been already. To simply ignore it not only would take more political courage than we have any realistic hope of witnessing, but would also almost certainly provoke severe social unrest and leave Britain more divided and disaffected than ever – potentially an effective recruiting climate for extremist groups.

A second referendum might be the least worst option. It doesn’t make the issue any less unsuited to a referendum in the first place, but the British population would at least have been served fair warning of what to expect. (The editor of the immensely influential pro-Leave tabloid The Sun has already confessed to “buyer’s remorse.”) But most importantly of all, the social problems that have thrown British politics further off the rails than it has ever been need to be tackled as an urgent priority. And yet no politician in government has really alluded to this issue at all in the past few days – the disaffected communities look likely to be left to sink or swim in the economic climate their anger has created.

In any event, scientific institutions need to look beyond their own interests and see this as a crisis, not just of funding and personnel, but of due political process and informed, evidence-driven decision making. We owe at least that much to history.