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Science and the European referendum 03.06.16

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Leave or remain? This seemingly simple question is dominating the media as UK residents ponder their choices in the upcoming referendum on Europe. It is not just those in the know (politicians, since you ask) who are trying to influence our decisions. The opinions of actors, artists, business leaders, Michelin-starred chefs, ex-England cricket captains, Premier League-winning football managers and even a former Abba singer have all fueled the media fire around the debate.

So too have scientists, but have they offered a united response to the question of our continuing in the European Union, or are they as fragmented as the rest of society? This blog tries to wade through the miasma of media opinion to see if there is a prevailing opinion from the STEM community.

A quick Google News search under the parameters “science” and “referendum” or “Brexit” automatically delivers hundreds of links to recent media stories. The first 250 are all pro-remain, focusing on anti-Brexit quotes from Stephen Hawking, whose celebrity is enough to generate mass media coverage in itself, although it also helped that he called Donald Trump a “demagogue” in the same interview.

This coverage is across all media though, what about science or research specific titles? You might presume that such specialist media would reflect the views of their readership. At first glance, the headline ‘facts’ regarding science and Brexit in these titles are contradictory, with the THE telling us Scientific excellence ‘at risk’ from Brexit one day and then the New Scientist running the headline, Vote Brexit and British science will still be a powerhouse only days later.

Confusing, yes, but delve a little deeper into the science pages of the financial media and a consistent theme starts to emerge, firstly with the Economist claiming Most scientists want to stay in the EU and then Financial Times following this with their article titled, For science, Brexit is an experiment too far. Lionel Barber, Editor of the Financial Times, backed this up with a tweet earlier this week (31 May), which stated: “[the] UK contributes 12 per cent to the total EU budget but receives more than 15 per cent of its science funding ‪#Brexit”.

Elsewhere a former Economist Science Editor and current member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, Viscount (Matt) Ridley, writes in the Times how British scientists would be better off out of the EU. Yet the same paper also carries a letter from 150 members of the Royal Society in favour of staying in the European Union, arguing that Brexit would be a “disaster for science”.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the opposing opinions regarding science and Brexit in the media. Investment in science and research is used as by both camps as a reason both to stay and to go. Two conflicting pressure groups claiming to be representative of UK scientists further cloud the debate. Scientists for Britain and Scientists for EU both claim to represent significant portions of UK science and offer claims and counter claims on whether the UK research sector would be healthier in or out of Europe.

Ultimately, no matter how dispassionately we try to view this decision we need to take into consideration that some of answers we seek from both camps are unknowable – hence the confusion. As with any leap into the unknown, some emotion can be the deciding factor in how we choose to vote. As Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at Imperial College wrote in the Guardian in his article The scientific impact of Brexit: it’s complicated, “We have to recognise the fact that this is an emotional matter, calling on beliefs and allegiances that are informed from our earliest days. However hard the head may try, the heart will have its sway.”

For questions about this blog, email joe@proofcommunication.com