BBC CONTINUES PROJECT FEAR OVER EU SCIENCE

BBC CONTINUES PROJECT FEAR OVER EU SCIENCE

On yesterday’s Today programme, Sarah Montague spoke to BBC science editor Tom Feilden about what Brexit would mean to the scientific community.  She said the scientific community was not exactly unified but there was ‘very overwhelming support’ for the EU, ‘not least because they argue the UK gets out more than it puts in.

Feilden said that with ‘one or two’ notable exceptions, the community was devastated with the result of the referendum, and threw in that there were ‘no two ways about that’. He ad,ded that he had spoken to Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse who was shortly to be director of  the Francis Crick Institute. He had described Brexit  as the worst disaster for UK science.  Feilden stated:

…the real underpinning behind that is . . . these days, science is not about one bloke in a garret, you know, thinking away about a problem, like Einstein did, and coming up with a solution, it’s a collaborative venture. And the UK has thrived and played a leading role in this wider collaborative, cooperative atmosphere within the European Union. Erm . . .

Montague asked if it was therefore the freedom of movement that was the principle concern. Fielden agreed and said it boiled down to that the UK had been able to attract the best brains to the best universities, so that the UK had become a ‘scientific powerhouse’ and a ‘leading light for science in Europe’.

Montague suggested that they were also worried about money. Feilden again agreed with her. He responded:

They, they, they, basically the two concerns come down to: we pay in quite a lot of money into the scientific kitty, if you like for Europe, but we get out a lot more in terms of the grants, and that’s because we’re doing so well at science. And the second is this idea of free movement. Those are the two key things, that it is a collaborative venture and people have to be able to move around and come and share their ideas and do their good science here at universities here.

Montague finally asked if anyone had any ideas in the new world, whatever it looked like. Feilden responded:

Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean (fragments of words, unclear) and I spoke to Sir Paul, he talked about a political vacuum, about nobody being in, nobody knows what the plan is, there was no preplanning ahead of the referendum result. And I think, you know, we’re going to hear some initial thoughts from Jo Johnson later today, because there isn’t a plan and the plan depends so much on what deal we can strike with the European Union over the coming two years.

At 7.49am, Montague  said that Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel laureate, had said that research in the UK was facing its biggest threat in living memory. She explained that UK universities and research centres received billions from the EU and relied on the free movement of people; a quarter of the scientists working at Cambridge ‘were from the EU’. Montague said the science minister Jo Johnson  would be making a speech setting put what would happen next.  She added that Dame Anne Glover had told her of her fears. Glover said that exit would affect funding streams such as Horizon 2020 and would limit the ability to get the best minds to come to the UK and to contribute to science, technology and engineering. Montague said that countries like Turkey had access to the money even though they were not in the EU. Glover said that they had to pay for access and were the poor relatives – they could not influence anything. Montague asked if we were getting more out of the EU than was put in. Glover replied that this was substantially the case, the UK put £5.4bn in and got £8.8bn out. Montague asked if the funding could be protected and free movement of people to get better control of immigration that would satisfy scientists. Glover replied:

Not really, because . . . we want free movement of people, that’s what we rely on to get the best possible advantage from Horizon 2020. And there’s a precedent here in that Switzerland was a full associated country of Horizon 2020, as soon as they voted in a referendum to restrict immigration in Switzerland, overnight they became a non-associated country, and could no longer have access.

Montague suggested that she was doing down Britain’s brilliant scientists and asked what would really happen. Glover said that they would still be here, but the problem was that science was ‘truly global’ and if papers were published with only British scientists on the by-line they would not have the same impact – papers needed international co-authors. Montague suggested that if the UK was out of the EU it could still work with European partners and others from the rest of the world. Glover replied that a funding mechanism would have to be found. She declared:

We have a perfect system at the moment, and that’s going to be undermined or denied to us as part of leaving the European Union.

SM: And on that costing, how much would the UK government need to put in to make up for the loss?

DAG: I think that UK government would have to fund UK science just shy of an extra £1 billion per annum. Now, we could provide that funding, but we still wouldn’t have the minds, so that won’t be addressed just by the UK government putting in a lot of funding.

Montague then introduced Professor Angus Dalglish, who she said was a spokesman for Scientists for Britain’ which had campaigned for Brexit’. She asked him if damage would be done to scientific research by removing free movement of people and limiting funding. Dalglish said this was hysterical. Science was not restricted by borders and leaving the EU would not limit the collaboration that had always gone on.  He added:

What they’re talking about here is the funding which is the money that we pay in and get out, and it’s very focused on, that sum of money which was mentioned there, which is for the peer-reviewed funding. They’ve . . . she didn’t mention the fact that there’s a large structural fund thereto, which we pay a fortune into and get very little out. And the Scientists for EU freely admit that an enormous amount of that money cannot be traced, it just goes on corruption and waste, which I think largely defines . . .

Montague interrupted to ask what size it was and what it was for. Dlaglish said it was 57 billion and Britain got 2 billion out, of the 57 billion, the UK contributed about eight billion. Montague asked if therefore there was a net gain of six billion that could be spent across the board. Dalglish replied: .

Yes, I do. And that, that’s just a part of the budget that goes on scientific related issues, and there’s all the other budget money, erm, that we put in, that we don’t get back. And as you quite rightly say, a lot of other countries participate in these programs without being in the EU, and really, can you tell me that in the European Union, the top ten universities, the top eight are UK, er, one of them is Switzerland, not in the EU, so in the top ten universities.

Montague pointed out that Glover had suggested that when Switzerland had tried to restrict immigration, they had been excluded from the fund. Dalglish said the next step would be to negotiate. Britain was the fifth biggest economy and there would and had high scientific standing. Montague interrupted to say that there was issue of free movement of people. Sir Paul Nurse and probably the majority of senior scientists in this country of all the universities thought ending that  would be bad not just for funding but free movement itself, ‘the ability of people to come and work here’.  Dalglish said people would still want to come – there would be freedom of labour as opposed to people, and there would be no restrictions on people who came for jobs Montague riposted:

Why not, why are the rules about freedom of movement not going to apply to scientists, if they apply to everybody else?

Dalglish said the subject would be settled by negotiation, the UK would not stop essential workers from the EU such as doctors coming to the country, and suggested there had been a confusion between the movement of people and the movement of labour. Montague replied:

. . . so, on the numbers, because a lot of people would say, ‘Look, the numbers have to come down’, you would say, from what you’re suggesting, numbers don’t necessarily have to come down, it’s just who we get in?

PAD:      No, we’ve always suggested that one way round this is a points-style system, like they have in Australia, and then people come immediately back and say that’s to increase immigration, but the same thing can be used here to decide the quality of people who you have, in. And I think that this idea that we won’t get the best brains if we’re outside the European Union is clearly not true.  I can think of half a dozen really top people who are here from Australia and New Zealand, and they’re not in the European Union, so I do not think that for people of really high calibre it’s going to make any difference to [them] at all.

ANALYSIS: Today’s approach assumed from the outset that there was massive support for remaining in the EU from the scientific community.  In doing so, yet again, the BBC was amplifying to the maximum extent the dangers and negativities of Brexit.

But how strong was support for ‘remain’ in the academic community? Professor Dalglish in his comments above underlined that at least some scientists and academics think strongly that Brexit will not affect funding or the range of research.  The organisation he represents, Scientists for Britain, has a website which explains why and also challenges the numbers that think EU support is vital for the science community.   It specifically claims that numbers supporting ‘remain’ have been exaggerated.

Tom Feilden, in his overview report (broadcast at 6.10am), seemed to totally reject this. He said that with ‘only one or two exceptions’ academics supported staying in the EU.

He did not say how he had arrived at this conclusion. One possibility is that the Times Education Supplement published about a week before the poll a survey of the views of academics about the referendum.

If so, Feilden was on dubious territory. Of the 403,385 staff working in higher education in 2014-15, only 1,082 responded to the survey. That equates to around 0.27% (fewer than one in three hundred) of the target group. More than 99% of academics did not feel motivated to vote or were not consulted. It could therefore be argued that the vast majority of academics do not actually care about the EU’s role in research.

Feilden might also have drawn on a release by the formal ‘remain’ organisation British Stronger in Europe, which claimed that 5,000 scientists supported ‘remain’. This was based on that the 5,000 had written to newspapers outlining their concerns. Thus undoubtedly happened and indicated that some of the scientists were militantly concerned.

But the question here is how representative or typical this grouping was. The initiative was pushed by BSE.  Those who signed the letter were clearly politically motivated, and for example, Sir Paul Nurse, one of the key figures behind the letter, is an active member of the Labour party.  These are important caveats which should have been pointed out to the audience.

But Feilden did not do so. He gave the impression instead that the scientific community was devastated and that this, that it was believed, was ‘the worst disaster’ for UK science.  He emphasised this by stating the claims expressed in the BSE letter (and later by Dame Anne Glover) that this was because their research was a ‘collaborative venture’ which would now come to an end.

Sarah Montague compounded the negativity by asking Feilden if (the possible ending) of ’freedom of movement’ was also a ‘principle concern’. Feilden asserted that such movement had allowed the UK to become a ‘scientific powerhouse’. Montague’s then asked if the loss of EU money was also a problem. Feilden noted that the UK paid money into the EU, but ‘got a lot more out’ because the UK was doing so well in terms of science.  Winding up, Feilden pointed out that Sir Paul Nurse, had also warned there was now a ‘political vacuum’  and there was no plan for what happened next.

Thus overall, Feilden put forward that Brexit would be deeply damaging to scientific research in the UK, said all but one or two researchers wanted to remain in the EU, and pushed hard Sir Paul Nurse’s agenda that this was a disaster without a plan of repair or way forward.

At 7.49am, in her interviews with Glover and Dalglish, Sarah Montague in effect picked up where Feilden had left off, and amplified his negativity about Brexit further. She first noted that Sir Paul Nurse, ‘the Nobel Laureate’ – thus emphasising his credentials – had claimed research was facing its biggest threat in living memory. Next she stressed that UK universities received ‘billions’ from the EU, and repeated the claim that this research activity relied upon the ‘free movement of people’ – further emphasising its importance by also pointing out that a quarters of research staff at Cambridge were from the EU.

In the pre-recorded interview with Dame Anne Glover, Montague put a couple of mildly adversarial points – such as that Turkish researchers received money even thought they were outside the EU – but the main aim of the sequence appeared to be to let Glover push that almost everything in this domain was now at risk, that Britain got far more from the EU than it put in; that the free movement of people was essential because science was ‘truly global’; and that Switzerland, which was outside the EU, could not have access to the EU funding because it did not accept free movement. Glover concluded – without challenge from Montague – that the current system was ‘perfect’ and it was now threatened by Brexit.

Montague moved on to Dalglish at this point. She did not tell the audience anything about him (unlike with Sir Paul Nurse) other than he was a spokesman for Scientists for Britain. She could easily have dug out that he is a leading oncology with a distinguished international career and sits on the European Commission Cancer Board, making him especially knowledgeable about the EU, but did not do so. She could also have explained more about Scientists for Britain in terms of its potential credibility but did not. The editorial effort was entirely the other way in underlining that the credentials of those who challenged Brexit were high and impressive.

That said, she allowed Dalglish to put across clearly that he believed that the EU money was not as crucial to scientists had had been claimed, that the UK did not get much money out of the structural research fund, and that reaction to the potential changes was ‘hysterical’; that the EU administration of the research budget was inefficient and even corrupt; that free movement of people was not actually the issue – what counted was that free movement of labour would continue after Brexit, allowing academics to come to the UK. Montague pushed the discussion towards the critical importance of the ending of free movement of people issue, but Dalglish was able to put across his counter views.

The main issue here overall was therefore the undoubted bias of Feilden and Montague in their explanation and determination of the issues being considered. They both in different ways underlined the strength of the scientific community’s concern about Brexit and the related allegations that the UK was going to suffer to disaster level. Dalglish vigorously disputed this, but by the time he appeared the potential importance of what he said had already been undermined – it seemed from the set-up that he was a lone voice against the undoubted and incontrovertible weight of academic opinion.

This was thus another part of the BBC’s continuation of Project Fear about Brexit – greater credibility and weight was given to those who were warning of the consequences, and arguably this was a continuation of the BSE fight against Brexit.

 

Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 30th June 2016, Scientists and the Referendum, 6.12am

SARAH MONTAGUE:      The Science Minister, Jo Johnson will be speaking to leading scientists today, not least to consider what Brexit will mean for the scientific community and research.  Tom Feilden is our science editor, and Tom, the science community in a way, not entirely unified, but very overwhelming support for the EU, not least because they argue that the UK gets out more than it puts in?

TOM FEILDEN:   Well, I certainly think it’s fair to say that the scientific community, with, as you say, one or two notable exceptions was devastated by the result of the referendum, there’s no two ways about that.  I spoke to Sir Paul Nurse yesterday, that’s the Nobel laureate, he’s going to be boss of the new Francis Crick Institute, former president of the Royal Society.  He described it as ‘the worst disaster for UK science . . . ever.’ Erm, and (short laugh?) (fragments of words, unclear) the real underpinning behind that is . . . these days, science is not about one bloke in a garret, you know, thinking away about a problem, like Einstein did, and coming up with a solution, it’s a collaborative venture.  And the UK has thrived and played a leading role in this wider collaborative, cooperative atmosphere within the European Union.  Erm . . .

SM:       So it’s freedom of movement is their particular concern?

TF:         Yeah. I mean, basically, what it comes down to is we’ve been able to attract the best brains to the best universities, some of the best universities in the world and have really been able to become a scientific powerhouse here in the UK, a leading light for science in Europe.

SM:       They’re also worried about money though, aren’t they?

TF:         They are. They, they, they, basically the two concerns come down to: we pay in quite a lot of money into the scientific kitty, if you like for Europe, but we get out a lot more in terms of the grants, and that’s because we’re doing so well at science. And the second is this idea of free movement.  Those are the two key things, that it is a collaborative venture and people have to be able to move around and come and share their ideas and do their good science here at universities here.

SM:       And does anybody have any ideas as to how to address those concerns in the new world, whatever the new world looks like?

TF:         Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean (fragments of words, unclear) and I spoke to Sir Paul, he talked about a political vacuum, about nobody being in, nobody knows what the plan is, there was no preplanning ahead of the referendum result.  And I think, you know, we’re going to hear some initial thoughts from Jo Johnson later today, because there isn’t a plan and the plan depends so much on what deal we can strike with the European Union over the coming two years.

SM:       A story we’ll be returning to, not least at ten to eight this morning, Tom Feilden, thanks very much.

 

Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 30th June 2016, Scientists and the Referendum, 7.49am

 SARAH MONTAGUE:      The Nobel Laureate and former president of the Royal Society, Professor Paul Nurse has said research in this country is facing its biggest threat in living memory.  UK universities and research centres receive billions from the EU, and the scientific community relies on free movement of people.  A quarter of the scientists working at Cambridge from the EU.  The science Minister, Jo Johnson, will be speaking to scientists today who want to know what happens now.  Dame Anne Glover was the first and last scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission, she is now at Aberdeen University.  And she told me about her fears.

DAME ANNE GLOVER:   My concern will be that a negotiation to leave the European Union will somehow affect our ability to be able to access both the funding stream, which is Horizon 2020, to influence the strategy of what that funding is focused towards, and will limit our ability to get the best minds in the world to come to the UK and to contribute to science, engineering and technology here.

SM:       But there are countries like Turkey and Israel who have access to Horizon 2020 funding, and they’re not part of the EU.

DAG:     They have to pay for what they get, they cannot influence anything done in Horizon 2020, so they’re really poor relatives.

SM:       And the argument is that . . . what, as things stand we get more funding out of the EU than we put in?

DAG:     Substantially, when it comes to research.  So, if we look at the last funding programme, we got about €8.8 billion out of that program, and our proportional contribution was €5.4 billion.

SM:       If there was some way to protect that, but to change freedom of movement, so we have better control of immigration, would that satisfy scientists?

DAG:     Not really, because . . . we want free movement of people, that’s what we rely on to get the best possible advantage from Horizon 2020.  And there’s a precedent here in that Switzerland was a full associated country of Horizon 2020, as soon as they voted in a referendum to restrict immigration in Switzerland, overnight they became a non-associated country, and could no longer have access.

SM:       Okay, say the worst happens, and we lose these things you’re talking about, what difference would it really make, because a lot of people would say, ‘hold on a second, you’re doing the UK down here, we have brilliant scientists, we’ll still have brilliant scientists.’?

DAG:     Yeah, and you’re absolutely right, we still will be able to science.  But science is unusual, because it is truly global, and so if I publish a paper but just with other UK scientists, all the evidence says that that paper will have less impact than if I publish with international co-authors.

SM:       But you absolutely made the point, science is global, sites will still be global if we are out of the EU and we can still work with European partners as well as the rest of the world, surely?

DAG:     But we have to find a funding mechanism to allow us to do that.  We have a perfect system at the moment, and that’s going to be undermined or denied to us as part of leaving the European Union.

SM:       And on that costing, how much would the UK government need to put in to make up for the loss?

DAG:     I think that UK government would have to fund UK science just shy of an extra £1 billion per annum.  Now, we could provide that funding, but we still wouldn’t have the minds, so that won’t be addressed just by the UK government putting in a lot of funding.

SM:       Dame Anne Glover, talking to me earlier. Well, here in the studio is Professor Angus Dalglish, who’s a spokesman for Scientists for Britain and campaigned for Brexit, good morning to you.

PROFESSOR ANGUS DALGLISH:  Good morning.

SM:       Do you accept these arguments about the damage that would be done to scientific research by removing free movement and limiting the funding?

PAD:      No, I don’t.  I think it’s rather hysterical actually, because science . . . er, scientists are rather like fish, they don’t really know where the waters are, territorial boundaries, etcetera, and er, I really don’t think it would interfere with the collaboration that we’ve always done.  What they’re talking about here is the funding which is the money that we pay in and get out, and it’s very focused on, that sum of money which was mentioned there, which is for the peer-reviewed funding.  They’ve . . . she didn’t mention the fact that there’s a large structural fund thereto, which we pay a fortune into and get very little out.  And the Scientists for EU freely admit that an enormous amount of that money cannot be traced, it just goes on corruption and waste, which I think largely defines . . .

SM:       (interrupting) Structural funding, how much? What sort of . . . what size is it and what’s it for?

PAD:      The size is about 57 billion (no denomination given) and we get less than 2 billion out of it.

SM:       How much do we put into it?

PAD:      About 8 billion, as far as I (word unclear due to speaking over)

SM:       (speaking over) So you’re saying there’s a net gain of £6 billion that we could get from that, which we could spend on, on, across the board?

PAD:      Yes I do. And that, that’s just a part of the budget that goes on scientific related issues, and there’s all the other budget money, erm, that we put in, that we don’t get back. And as you quite rightly say, a lot of other countries participate in these programs without being in the EU, and really, can you tell me that in the European Union, the top ten universities, the top eight are UK, er, one of them is Switzerland, not in the EU, so in the top ten universities . . .

SM:       (speaking over) But she made a point about Switzerland, which is that the mo— . . . when they voted to restrict immigration . . .

PAD:      Hmm.

SM:       . . . overnight they were effectively excluded from this fund?

PAD:      Well, one of the things I think we have to negotiate, we’re not Switzerland, we are the fifth largest trading organisation in the world, we’re probably the most important scientific voice in the world, we have more Nobel Prize winners, etcetera, and they impact on the rest of Europe, so I don’t see why we’re not going to have a voice if we just participate as we’re doing, and I don’t see (fragment of word, unclear due to speaking over)

SM:       (speaking over) (fragments of words, unclear) I mean, (fragments of words, unclear) there’s the funding, there is also this question of free movement, you have Professor Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Laureate, you have the majority, probably of senior scientists in this country, all the universities saying that this would be bad, and if not just for the funding but also for the free mood (sic) movement. That ability for people to come and work here.

PAD:      The ability for people to come and work here has always been the case, and I don’t think it’s going to be affected by this.  What we’re talking about is freedom of labour, as opposed to freedom of movement of people, and if we don’t . . . we will not have restrictions on people to come here for jobs, and for basically (fragments of words, unclear due to speaking over)

SM:       (speaking over) Why not, why are the rules about freedom of movement not going to apply to scientists, if they apply to everybody else?

PAD:      Well, they’re not going to apply, this is one of the things that’s going to be thrashed out in Brexit, they’re not going to apply to people who you really need.  You’re not going to stop people from the EU coming to be doctors or nurses etcetera here, when there’s a job to go to.  That’s not going to change. I mean, half the people who come here aren’t even in the EU, and that’s not going to change if they’re needed. So I think that that’s . . . there’s been a big confusion about movement, freedom of movement of people and freedom of movement of labour.

SM:       So can I . . . so, on the numbers, because a lot of people would say, ‘Look, the numbers have to come down’, you would say, from what you’re suggesting, numbers don’t necessarily have to come down, it’s just who we get in?

PAD:      No, we’ve always suggested that one way round this is a points-style system, like they have in Australia, and then people come immediately back and say that’s to increase immigration, but the same thing can be used here to decide the quality of people who you have, in. And I think that this idea that we won’t get the best brains if we’re outside the European Union is clearly not true.  I can think of half a dozen really top people who are here from Australia and New Zealand, and they’re not in the European Union, so I do not think that for people of really high calibre it’s going to make any difference to [them] at all.

SM:       Professor Angus Dalglish, thank you very much.

Photo by Trondheim Havn

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