Brexit Divisions

EU referendum: the view of a UCL clinician-scientist

Scientific advance relies on creativity, cooperation, and financing. To leave the EU would diminish all three, dimming the light of British science in the world and threatening the UK's future economy.

John Martin
25 March 2016
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Bill Dickinson/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Few votes in history are as existentially crucial as the EU in-out referendum, which will be held soon. The summation of the wishes of several million UK voters as expressed on one day may change not only the cultural, economic, and social future of those individuals, but might have a significant indirect effect for non-voting citizens across Europe. I see the matter from two points of view: as a scientist and a doctor, and secondly as a moral person concerned about political development.

I am a scientist whose job is to discover new treatments for human disease. This requires a laboratory, funding, and a group of scientists who are willing to work together, to give their enthusiasm to invention. We need new creative ideas of quality. In writing a novel one individual, alone, can produce a product that moves thousands of others. But, due to the complexity of the problems as well as the methodologies used, advances in science require teamwork. If new treatments for heart disease, brain disease, or cancer are to be found then teams are necessary. Teams, in turn, are at their most creative when different members see the problem from different angles.

My laboratory is staffed by young scientists from many different EU countries: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Greece and Portugal. Each speaks and writes well in English. Each respects the quality of British science, particularly the intellectual quality, and each brings a different approach to the analysis of the scientific question at hand. This comes not only from having had different scientific training while reading the universal science journals in English, but also from  different cultural, ethnic, and linguistic experiences. These differences in experience give a variety of slightly obtuse, differently focussed views of the question and its solution.

When these are expressed in a rigorous yet free atmosphere then the quality of science produced can be exceptionally rich. Right now, the young scientists working in my laboratory can come to work as a right, and, because they are citizens of the EU, they can live in the UK as if they were British. This right not only encourages the free movement of labour within the EU. It also means that I can select the best from the pool of 380 million people. Furthermore, the EU scientists feel welcome in the UK as Europeans. This not only has a positive psychological effect on their work, but saves me the effort of organising visas and overcoming the other obstacles that exist if I wish to employ a scientist from outside the EU.

If Britain were to exit the EU, it would become more difficult for me and EU scientists to work together in the UK. They would be more likely to work in the laboratories of Berlin, Milan, Paris or Stockholm, where working language of the laboratory is also English. When I eat in a restaurant in London, I am aware that the food has a European flavouring, the service has a European sparkle, and the chef is often continental. This is an improvement on the dullness of the restaurant of my childhood, long before the UK entered the EU with its free movement of labour. The same change has occurred in science.

Science for the future

The richness of creativity in the science laboratory perhaps has implications for the future of our economy. The UK relies on generating taxable wealth from service industries. If we are to create more taxable wealth from making things, then those things may be the taxable assets of the future. Such material inventions will come from creative, patentable ideas in biology, medicine, engineering, electronics, and the rest of the physical sciences. Again the quality, and therefore value of the invention, will depend on the quality of the creative idea. This can only be enhanced, as in my laboratory, by the richness which comes into a team from the presence of other Europeans contributing to ideas. A decrease in the movement of labour from the EU to the UK would not help the material and financial value of the UK economy if it is to be an economy based at least in part on scientific creativity.

My laboratory in London is partially funded by the European Commission in Brussels. I have applied for research grants in competition with scientists across the EU, as have many other British scientists. The pot of money for research grants in Brussels is contributed to by each of the governments of the 28 member states. But the UK is the winner; in my field the UK gets more of the pot than any other country. We get more money back than we put in. Leaving the EU would cause a decrease to science funding in the UK.

I am a doctor who treats heart disease. I am a member of the European Society of Cardiology. European cardiologists are a band of brothers and sisters who work together to bring the best practices of cardiology to patients across Europe. They operate across the EU without borders, meeting to analyse what is best practice as clinical science unfolds. The common language is English. Nationality is not relevant; ability is. The European approach of analysis of science as applied to clinical science is respected and emulated around the world including in the US. This approach of pan-Europeanism in cardiology is an example of what can be achieved by having a common goal with a common organisation of critical size. Would it be an advance for the British Cardiac Society to leave the European Society of Cardiology? Clearly not.

As with scientists, doctors who come to the UK to practice medicine bring a refreshing, enhancing view of medicine that is an advantage to the NHS. American doctors are rare or absent from this mixing of expertise. The barriers which stop US doctors coming have been abolished for EU citizens. Should we again put those barriers in place for Europeans? Should we decrease the creativity of our science and diminish the leavening of our medicine?

Our regulatory organisation of new medicines relies on the combined expertise of 28 countries (including the UK). This is the European Medicines Agency (EMA). If the referendum is for withdrawal, then that decision has to mean something in concrete detail. Would the UK withdraw from the EMA and establish its own agency? If so, it would probably have to invite continental experts to attend to help make quality decisions. Is not the stupidity of such a change self-evident?

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