The forthcoming referendum is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the British electorate to decide on our future relationship with the rest of Europe. I believe that as scientists, we should help to inform the debate in a responsible manner, using the available facts and logic, and then reach our honest conclusions, whether “remain” or “leave”, without fear or favour. In doing so, we should recognise our strengths and not talk ourselves down – there will be plenty of others willing to do that as we’ve seen already.
One fact is that the EU (by re-cycling our OWN contribution money in the form of “Grants”) funds just 3% of UK research and development. Furthermore, our electorate need to know that Britain is a powerhouse, not just of European science, but of global science, and has 5 of its Universities in the world’s top 20 whereas the rest of the EU has none in that group. Naturally, therefore, Britain is a magnet for training European scientists and also those from other parts of the world. Scientific research is and always has been an international endeavour, and the development of valuable collaborations, the exchange of ideas and culture between UK and European scientists, will continue when we leave the EU, just as they did for hundreds of years before we joined! That said, as well as working with our good friends in Italy, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the UK must continue to concentrate on our scientific exchanges with our current main collaborator, America, which is the global scientific superpower and which shares our English mother tongue.
On leaving the EU there will be more than enough funding available (from the hundreds of millions of pounds we send to Europe every week) to increase the UK science budget, and it is up to us as British scientists to explain to our government why science deserves a portion of that money, paid directly, rather than “granted-back” with an EU label, based on the decisions of others. I believe that from the science viewpoint there is nothing to fear from a vote to leave the EU, and there may well be considerable benefits from concentrating for once on British interests.
I have dedicated my whole life as a research scientist to the pursuit of new knowledge and discovery, but young people in particular need to understand that there is something much more important than that at stake in the coming vote; much more important than science, than politics, than trade (which incidentally I believe will expand greatly when we’re outside the EU), than immigration or the economy, and that is FREEDOM. The new generation seem to think that they have more freedoms now under the EU, but that is a sad illusion which could so easily be taken away from them. If they doubt that, then think back a couple of months to the sight of Mr. Cameron, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, having to scurry over to his masters in Brussels to beg for the return of a few minor powers prior to the Brexit vote, and being largely rejected in the process! For many this was a moment of mirth, for others great sadness, but for some of the older generation I suspect it sent a shiver down their spines. They will have recognised, from those few moments of TV footage, just how much of our freedom our venal politicians have already given away, freedoms fought for hard and long, and often to the death, by my fathers’ generation.
Watching another TV programme the other night, which was seeking the views of the younger generation, we saw students talking about the benefits of free travel across Europe, and some said they might like to get a job in Europe when they finish their studies. I am a great lover of Europe and am married to a wonderful Italian lady, also a scientist. We have several well-educated Italian nieces and nephews with degrees, some in science, searching desperately for jobs, most without success, and we can tell those British students there are virtually no jobs for them in Europe! The programme did, however, make me think back to when I was their age, just 20 and long before the EU, travelling freely through Europe on a British passport. I had a wonderful month’s holiday in Greece, sleeping freely on the beaches, and I ended up travelling deck-class on a ship from the islands back to Athens ready to begin a long hitch-hike home. After buying the boat ticket I was down to my last two shillings and six pence – about twelve pence in today’s money, but I was young and strong and not at all concerned about how I would survive the unknown journey through many different countries, some of them run by Communist regimes. I met a beautiful young girl also travelling deck-class on the overnight journey, a Maths student returning to Athens University, and a young man whom I’d thought was her boyfriend, but turned out to be her cousin – playing a chaperone role. We talked about all the usual things that young people from different cultures do, and when we disembarked in Athens the next day, as I came down the gangplank, the young girl, Voula was her name as I recall, was waiting for me on the quay. She’d said goodbye to her cousin and wanted to show me Athens before I started my journey. I apologised, saying that I had no money left to do anything, but she insisted on taking me to lunch and an open air cinema, the historical sites – all in all a wonderful day. In the evening, I put my rucksack on my shoulder and said if she could point me to the best road North I should really head out now. She said “No!”, she’d got a friend whose room was vacant and I should stay ‘til morning and have a fresh start. Next morning, I was getting ready to go when Voula knocked on the door and entered with some orange juice, bread and cheese for breakfast. But she also had a big surprise for me, a train ticket from Athens to London!! I was overwhelmed by her generosity, promised to pay her back, but asked her why, when she didn’t know me at all. I’ll never forget her reply. She said that her family had taught her that the British and Americans were gods (her word), for sending their young men (just 25 years earlier) thousands of miles to foreign soil, to fight and die in helping free the Greeks and others from German tyranny. I was speechless, standing in the land of Zeus, Apollo and the Spartans, with this beautiful young girl describing my father and uncles as gods – as a typical teenager I’d never seen them that way! On the train journey through Greece, Macedonia, Yugoslavia, Austria and Germany I then had time to reflect that Voula had also given me a sense of shame. As I’d played in the sea and the sand and enjoyed the good yet simple life on my holiday which was just ending, I’d barely given a thought to the generation before me who actually had to fight for that freedom, some on beaches like the ones I’d just enjoyed.
To our young Britons I would simply say look at the power of Germany today – and recognise that the political construct of the EU is effectively driven by one country, primarily to fulfil its own objectives. Look at one obvious and disastrous consequence, the Euro, an ongoing nightmare for the peoples of Southern Europe, and ask whether there could be others around the corner. Some of our friends abroad are looking to Britain to be the counterweight of this power, but I don’t believe we can fulfil that role from within the EU, where the majority will usually fall into line in order to get the money. Try to understand how and why the crisis in Ukraine came about, and look at the serious new moves to form a European Army under Brussels’ control, and like me, think of Voula and her family’s joy in liberation and don’t imagine that it couldn’t all happen again – vote Leave.
Howard R. Morris
Howard Morris PhD, DSc(Hon), FRSA, FRS is Professor of Biological Chemistry (now Emeritus) at Imperial College, London since 1980. He is the co-author of some 450 peer-reviewed scientific papers and the recipient of numerous awards including the 2014 Queen’s Medal for Interdisciplinary and Applied Sciences from the Royal Society. Since 1980 Howard has also founded six high-tech businesses (CROs) in the fields of Analytical Chemistry and Biochemistry in the UK, USA, Jersey, Germany and Switzerland, including two since “retirement” together with his wife Maria and former Imperial student Dr. Andrew Reason. Howard is married with four children and four grandchildren.