Many scientists in the UK could soon find themselves isolated from their colleagues in Europe and Scotland
Louis Pasteur quite famously remarked that science knows no country, he clearly wasn’t thinking anything of research funding. Scientists don’t pay much attention to the nationality that they are working with, simply they just look to seek out people that can help them take their studies further. In practice the choice of research partners is constrained by mitigation policies, funding regimes and political will however currently the potential choices are greater than ever. This is why it is frustrating that constraints may be tightened.
The European Union is very good for UK science, That has now been threatened by the huge surge in support for Eurosceptic parties in the recent elections. If UKIP were to get their way and the UK steps away from the European Union, the UK’s researchers may find themselves cut off from former collaborators.
This isn’t the only major question mark over the future of UK science, this September the Scottish public will vote on independence. Science and technology have played important parts in the past and will shape the future of Scottish history. With great Scotsman such as Alexander Graham Bell and James Watt being some of the faces of Scottish history.
But today’s Scottish science is rarely done by lone geniuses. Rather, it is conducted at world-leading research institutes, such as the Roslin Institute, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics, where researchers from around the globe can come together to collaborate. Again, it is unclear how cross-border access to funding and facilities will be arranged if Scotland goes it alone.
UK leaders have recently been very vocal in their support of a resurgence in science and technology in pursuit of a more balanced economy. George Osborne has outlined plans to encourage the development of research clusters. This included one that would stretch across southern Scotland, he also said he would invest £7 billion in science infrastructure over the next parliamentary term.
This avowed enthusiasm for science, from so close to the top of government, is encouraging, even if the details remain to be thrashed out and opinions differ on how big an economic benefit such a strategy might yield. But if UK science is to succeed, Osborne, his colleagues and his successors must address its international dimensions too. So far, science has gone unmentioned in both the Scottish and European debates. That needs to change.
Once, nations guarded the prowess and achievements of their researchers jealously. Times have passed when forgoing narrow definitions of national interest in favour of collaboration has proved hugely productive. It would be a setback if scientists found themselves facing those barriers again, when their ideas so clearly benefit from being taken up by anyone, anywhere in the world. As Pasteur also said, knowledge belongs to humanity.