hugh penningtonProfessor Hugh Pennington says Brexit is a victory for xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism, and a catastrophe for science, and it’s clear that Scottish independence would only compound the damage.


Brexit is a victory for xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism. Never mind anything else, these things are particularly incompatible with science.

My own scientific career matured in Glasgow after returning from working in the US to a UK-funded research institute led by someone who came to Britain in the Kindertransport. And one of my biggest bragging moments is that once I sat next to the Nobel Laureate H. Gobind Khorana on the bus from the university car park at Madison, Wisconsin. Son of a Punjabi patwari (a village tax officer), he got his PhD at Liverpool and then worked in Zurich, Cambridge, and Vancouver before settling in the US.

British scientists have done well out of the EU. The UK paid €5.4 billion into its science budget between 2007 and 2013 but won €8.8 billion back in competitively awarded grants. Only the most panglossian optimist expects that access to this money will continue. In theory we could try to copy non-EU Switzerland, which had negotiated access to these funds. But a Swiss referendum decision to put conditions on the entry of foreigners – in essence terminating its Schengen membership – has put this arrangement in jeopardy. An unsatisfactory partial patch-up arrangement expires next year.

Will new money replace these grants from the EU? Some prominent Brexiteers have said don’t worry; they love science. But Michael Gove is on record as saying that Britain has had enough of experts. In any case, other big demands on the Treasury will come first. The Welsh Government will want compensation for the loss of substantial EU structural funds. Farmers will demand continuation of the enormous subsidies that currently come from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. And the NHS will need vast sums for all time coming.

For scientists in Scotland all this is bad enough. But the prospect of Indy Ref 2 doubles the dread. The arguments about the benefits of staying in the UK were exactly the same as those for staying in the EU –access to big pots of research moneys, punching above our weight at getting them, seats at the policy-making table, and free and unencumbered movement of scientists across a purely nominal border.

But the SNP government has shown little interest in science. Its Chief Scientific Adviser post has only just been filled, after lying empty for 17 months. University budgets have been cut.

The main text of the 2013 White Paper devoted 3 pages to science (accompanied by pictures of Dolly the sheep, and high power microscope lenses made in Germany). The main proposal was for the status quo; an independent Scotland would try to keep access to rUK Research Council funding and facilities.

Perhaps the civil servant who wrote this bit of the document was familiar with Anton Chekov’s dictum “There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science”.

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5 thoughts on “Brexit – bad for science

  1. Hugh, I think you stick to science and leave politics to others. Frankly, the idea that organisation along national lines is somehow incompatible with science, research, or basic mathematics, is so obviously wrong that I think a case could be made for you avoiding those subjects too.

    Just about every major discovery of the last 120 years was reached because one national government or another decided to invest in research — this very mechanism by which we communicate now, the Internet, came right out of an American military lab, for example. Need I bore the whole world by going through the endless list of other such discoveries and inventions funded by national governments?

    Clearly you don’t have any problem with nation states per se; your problem is with the possibility of a Scottish national state. That’s not a scientific opinion, although it’s an opinion you are entitled to hold, just as jihadists and other irrational extremists are entitled to their opinions; it’s a political opinion.

    My guess is it’s also a selfish opinion though. Opposition to Scottish independence nearly always comes from those who have profited from the UK status quo. My advice is that you stay in more and watch TV; an independent Scotland would be warmly welcomed in the EU and I can only imagine that would apply to our scientists too in terms of European collaborative research and funding.

  2. So the ability for an independent Scotland to remain or re-join the EU doesn’t appeal to the good Prof? That’s a bit odd, isn’t it, given the first part of his comment?
    The UK within the EU—good. Scotland within the EU—bad.
    And he appears to think the government of this independent Scotland would always be SNP. Very unscientific!

  3. The chance of an independent Scotland could actually be seen to “right the wrong”, not “double the dread”.

    There is no good reason we can’t retain close links to the UK with a friendly settlement.
    If a compromise can be agree with the EU, we could have a new UK comprised of federal nations, where Scotland can be a link between the single market and the UK market. If Scotland has to vote for independence to achieve this first, then so be it. We can have a UK federation of nation states as well as EU membership.

    The way things are going, we are being asked to choose isolationism under the Tories, especially if Gove wins.
    I would love to see a joint Labour-SNP government in Holyrood where the parties work together instead of constantly fighting. We have more in common than not. Keeping the Tories at bay, and making our country a modern progressive nation in close partnership with the rest of Britain, but where our own interests and democracy is protected.

  4. Professor Hugh Pennington says Brexit is a victory for xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism and so everybody that voted for Brexit by his standards is a xenophobe, nationalist, isolationist, how can a scientist come to a conclusion like that without showing us the evidence come on Hugh show us the evidence I thought science is based on objectivity not subjectivity.

  5. “university budgets have been cut” , does this professor not understand that Scotland does not control the total amount of money it receives, and that our budget by has been cut by 10% over the last 3-4 years by a tory government who has imposed austerity on us.

    “British scientists have done well out of the EU”, but for some reason a independent Scotland that wants to remain in the EU and still have access to EU funding is BAD, while “Britain” who has voted to come out of the EU and would therefore not have access to EU funding is not so BAD.

    Tell me professor !, did you have a wee dram or 8 before you wrote this.

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