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”.