A Bad Week to be in Brussels

Historians of the future will no doubt make much of the UK’s political ramifications of the moment. This week has seen a particularly strange spectacle as the Tory party tears itself apart and the Labour party seems unable to sort itself out and step into the breach of political leadership. I happened to be in Brussels during the excitement of the no-confidence vote against Theresa May. That was not the city I would have chosen to pass such critical and fevered (if ultimately pointless) days, but the trip for my final plenary session with the European Research Council’s Scientific Council had long been in my diary, and so go I had to. It was a depressing experience all in all.

First of all, readers will know, because I have written about it before, that I am a great fan of the ERC. Loss of access to it, if Brexit happens (at least in the months if not years until an agreement over Associated Country status can be agreed, assuming it can be agreed) is just one of the many blows the academic sector will be hit by. For universities like my own, the loss of research funding will be very significant. UKRI and BEIS will be hard pressed to make up the shortfall, at least at speed, even if the money is made available by the Government (but what will a pound be worth by then?).

It isn’t just the money of course that is at stake. The ERC is a prestigious source of funding because of its approach. It has excellence as its sole criterion, its panels are international and their membership is regularly considered to make sure that everyone is playing their full part. As I said in my farewell speech to my fellow Scientific Council members, the rigour and scrutiny with which all parts of their work is carried out far exceeds the processes I am familiar with in the UK. The ERC worried about their gender statistics long before UK Research Councils published such data, possibly before they even collected the information. The care with which every single panel (75+ a year across all domains) is examined every year, again has no parallel that I am aware of in our domestic processes. I would be happy to be corrected on this point if I am simply ill-informed.  Success rates at every stage against variables such as host country, gender, scientific age and so on are compiled and examined for clues about what might be done better. Through widening participation efforts there is a constant push to encourage and facilitate applications from EU13 countries, without diluting the excellence criterion in the face of the challenges they face in terms of infrastructure etc.

So, I am a fan of the ERC but I am not sorry to be leaving the Scientific Council. Ever since our fateful referendum it has been a sad experience to attend the meetings and, yet again, be reminded of what we have voluntarily given up; to recognize that there is a Europe out there which is full of scientists (at least) who don’t want to see us go. They know what UK institutions have brought to the health of scientific research across the continent and they know that our absence will hurt everyone. The first meeting I attended after the referendum was the week following that fateful vote. Everyone pressed me to try to explain what had happened; of course I had no answer, no rationalisation. It is well known that by and large the academic community are committed remainers.

Over the dinners the two nights we were all present, conversation did seem to come back to politics. Not just the UK’s current shambles but many other countries were discussed, with representatives from other parts of the continent sharing feelings of gloom about their own country’s political strife and unease. The dinner on my final evening, when I and the three other members all of whom started at the same time as me six years ago were being celebrated, saw many phones on the table – not just mine – while we kept an eye on the no-confidence vote. And when it became clear May had survived, again all those embarrassing and impossible questions to answer: what does this mean and what happens next? I tried to smile rather than weep, but I came away from these days immensely depressed.

It isn’t, of course, all about science, nor do I think the Remain campaign in the run up to the referendum was wisely run in terms of reaching out to those who do not feel the benefits of an improving quality of life. Unfortunately, as so many have written and said over the last couple of years, those who voted leave because they felt short-changed by society are not going to see any improvement if we crash out. Even more jobs will be lost, the NHS will lack doctors and nurses, and the short respite of a trip to some sun on the continent will be both more expensive and more difficult to undertake.

Universities will suffer, our science and our education never mind our reputations and prestige, but other sectors and other workers will suffer more. It does not cheer me up to recognize that.

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