With the impending British Exit from the European Union (I’m sure there is some kind of abbreviated name for it… it’s been in the papers, I think), much of the UK and Europe is in a bit of a flap. It’s understandable, both the UK and the EU get so much from their continued partnership – free trade and free movement of people to name only a couple. This is not to mention the funding for local projects, for example the road and infrastructure projects along Scotland’s north coast, or the massive wind farms built with EU money. Local communities, businesses and innovators stand to lose so much more than most people would think.
This is especially true of the scientific community who, through the EU, have prospered like never before. With funding, free movement and free trading, scientific collaboration across Europe has never been stronger and, as such, Europe is leading the way in many areas of research; from particle physics to renewable and sustainable energy. As a physicist, I can only really comment with certainty on the physics aspect of scientific research in Europe, but in this field alone, we have seen great leaps forward.
And before people leap in with, “how does landing a probe on a moving asteroid or finding new particles help me?”, there have been great leaps forward in fields directly related to making life more comfortable for you. For example, new generations of nuclear power stations such as the “Evolutionary Pressurised-water Reactors” (EPR) or the AP1000 advanced passive pressurised water reactors (PWR) that are being planned for construction across Britain are the product of collaborations with French companies such as EDF and ENGIE. These power plants will produce clean energy in quantities that conventional production methods, such as fossil fuel plants, could only dream of.
With such an emphasis on collaboration, it’s no wonder scientists are worried about the UK’s imminent departure from the EU; but it’s not only companies across the channel that are worried about the potential loss of British expertise, but universities in the UK are also at risk. As Physics World pointed out in their April 2017 issue (Vol. 30 No. 4), non-UK EU nationals make up 24% of research and teaching staff within physics departments at UK universities. With the UK government refusing to comment on its commitment to ensuring the rights of EU citizens living within the UK after Brexit, universities are and their staff are becoming increasingly concerned over the security of their staffs’ positions. Much of this worry has prompted universities across the country to issue statements saying that they will do everything they can to ensure that staff and students are able to continue on in their current positions – but with a government that seems to be ploughing ahead at full tilt with little actual knowledge of where it is going, these messages can be of little comfort.
To be concise, then, as far as scientific research, education, collaboration and development is concerned, leaving the EU is the equivalent of deciding to replace the coolant in our nuclear reactors with ginger beer – a fun sounding, exciting, British idea, but with very little research or knowledge behind it and with the likelihood of catastrophic results for all involved.
So, how then, I hear you ask, does Scottish independence fit into all of this? Well for a start, much like the scientific community, Scotland was quite happy in the EU as it provided a lot of benefits but is now being dragged, screaming and protesting, out of it. This is happening despite the Scottish government offering multiple compromises and suggestions that would allow Scotland to retain access to the single market while the rest of the UK began the process of substituting heavy water for ginger beer. All of these suggestions were thrown out of the window by the UK government, who declared that they were implementing a UK-wide strategy for leaving the EU regardless of whether the various bits of the UK agreed to it. Cue Nicola Sturgeon and her bout for a second independence referendum.
The first referendum, in 2014, saw Scotland remain within the UK and chief among the UK government’s arguments for retaining the Union was EU membership. Scotland, a predominantly euro-friendly nation was told on no uncertain terms by the Better Together campaign that leaving the UK would put Scotland outside of the EU where we would have to spend years renegotiating our membership. Cited as proof was the Spanish position that Spain would apparently veto Scotland’s membership ensuring that Scotland would never get in again. This particular argument has fallen apart in recent weeks with Spain saying it would not stand in the way of allowing Scotland entry to the EU again. (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/apr/02/spain-drops-plan-to-impose-veto-if-scotland-tries-to-join-eu)
In fact, since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have been engaged in talks with the EU, its officials and its various member states, engaging in the first independent diplomacy by Scotland in over three hundred years. The results of this outreach have been incredibly positive, with EU member states vouching for Scotland’s entry and a letter signed by 50 MEPs to the Scottish Government outlining their support for Scotland having continued membership. Indeed Lord Kerr, the man who wrote Article 50, pointed out that the idea that Scotland would have to reapply from scratch and spend years outside the EU was nonsense, saying that an independent Scotland could “get in pretty quickly through the door marked accession” following application. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-37852628)
All of this puts Scotland in a very strong position to regain EU membership fairly swiftly following an independence vote. This, then, is good news for science in Scotland and in Europe. Since the Scottish Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Scottish scientists and engineers have led the way in so many fields. In the early days, Scottish physicists such as Maxwell laid new ground in thermodynamics and electromagnetism. Nowadays, Scotland is paving the way in terms of new renewable energy technologies and has world leading research in pioneering fields like particle physics, gravitational waves, nanotechnology… the list goes on.
We’ve already been told that Scotland won’t be able to continue its access to the single market as part of the UK, so the only chance at continuing to prosper with the rest of Europe is via independence. And with a country so dedicated to scientific R and D as Scotland, surely research is bound to flourish.
It may not come as huge comfort to those who have based themselves in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, but for the large numbers of EU nationals working in Scotland and for the European collaborations who would otherwise stand to lose out, it is something.
This also offers us a chance to make ourselves competitive as a country; it is a chance to say to Europe that we have been the hotbed of science and discovery for centuries and now we want to ensure that continues with you guys! Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) have voiced their concern over the loss of British input, we need to be saying come, have Scottish workers and scientists, collaborate with our institutions! This comes as the European Commission debates being able to cancel contracts with companies based outside of the EU without penalty (https://www.ft.com/content/2f0e7a6e-1eff-11e7-a454-ab04428977f9). This is bad news for UK business, but presents an opportunity for Scottish business should Scotland leave the UK and opt to join the EU as an independent nation.
There is no doubt that science contributes greatly to any economy, be that putting probes on asteroids or developing new technologies that can do directly to consumers. Collaboration with our European partners in science has helped us to make some huge leaps in progress and has also allowed for new companies to spring up, creating jobs in R and D and manufacture. All of these businesses have been helped by the UK’s access to the single market, giving businesses access to the best skilled workers from around Europe. Our leaving the EU makes it less certain that we will have access to such skills and, as a result, could fall behind our global competitors.
If we want to ensure that collaboration with European institutions, companies and facilities continue to drive our own scientific community and economy, we need to seriously consider independence as a primary option.