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Anne Glover

The Brexit referendum was not fought on evidence but on prejudice around immigration, Glover says.

European Biomass Conference/Flickr

Q&A: Former E.U. science adviser Anne Glover on U.K. research after Brexit: 'I'm very pessimistic'

Anne Glover has had her struggles with the Brussels bureaucracy. The Scottish biologist was the European Union’s first chief science adviser—and the last. With a tiny budget and an ill-defined mandate, she was often frustrated in her attempts to get politicians to acknowledge scientific evidence when it went against positions they held. After Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the European Commission in 2014, he scrapped the post, to her chagrin, and replaced it with a new science advice mechanism.  

But Glover, who is now vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, is one of many scientists who are shocked at the United Kingdom’s vote to quit the European Union.

Q: What’s your reaction to the decision?

A: I’m just a bit bewildered but also ashamed by my own country. I never thought this would happen, although I was increasingly concerned the last few days before the referendum.

Q: Why are you ashamed?

A: Because the referendum was not fought on evidence, it was fought on prejudice around immigration. I suspect it also played a role that for 20 years or so, the media in our country never said anything good about the E.U. It was always “us” and “them.” Nobody ever sought to explain what the E.U. project is or why it is valuable. The remain campaign did attempt to use evidence, but it was very hard for them to challenge or undermine an emotional story, especially when people had been teed up for that emotional story for decades.

Q: Expertise wasn’t valued very much in the debate. Michael Gove, one of the leading leave campaigners, even said: "I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”

A: It is beyond description or explanation for me. If I was having an operation on a brain tumor, I would want an expert doing it. There is every reason that we should value expertise and knowledge. This referendum was a most peculiar thing and it was fought on antielitist, antiestablishment sentiments. It was an appalling debate on both sides.

Q: What does the result mean for U.K. science?

A: We’re the major beneficiary of the European Research Council and that brings some of the best minds in Europe and elsewhere to the U.K. We benefit from that, our economy benefits enormously, and it brings us intellectual stimulation and creativity. If we look at the rest of Horizon 2020, we also do very well. The Royal Society issued an analysis last year that showed that in [Horizon 2020's predecessor,] Framework Programme 7, we contributed €5.4 billion over 7 years, but what we received was €8.8 billion.

Q: Do you think that money will be lost?

A: It’s very early days, I know, but it’s hard for me to see under the current climate, whatever government there will be in the U.K., that they would be able to make up that shortfall. It’s not my natural state, but I’m very pessimistic about how we will maintain scientific excellence. Just even getting the best minds from around the world to work with us, whether that’s by attracting them to come here or the ability for us to go elsewhere and to work in partnership with people. There will be barriers to this.

Q: How will the divorce work?

A: I’ve been trying to get some clarity to find out what will happen, because there are people today preparing grant applications for Horizon 2020 calls. What I’m assuming is that we can continue to apply and we could still be awarded a program as long as the start date was before the formal date of our Brexit. That’s my best guess.

I would say though that people are human and I worry that when they're assessing grant proposals and they see the United Kingdom as a partner, they might think: “Well, but where is their long-term investment in our  European project?”' It may be sufficient to put a question mark over those proposals, or at least the U.K. involvement. I have no evidence for saying that, except that very few divorces are amicable. And who knows about this one. If I was in Italy or Germany or Estonia and thinking of inviting a U.K. partner, I might think again.

Q: One scenario being debated is Scotland staying in the European Union without the rest of the United Kingdom.

A: I think it is very likely that Scotland will have a second vote on independence. By staying in the U.K. we are now being pulled out of the E.U. against our will. The impact of the research we do in Scotland relative to our [gross domestic product] is No. 1 in the world. So we are a science nation and we rely on the best in the world coming to work here and our ability to go elsewhere. I hope that we can have a vote on independence before there is a Brexit agreement, so that we can somehow remain an E.U. member and don’t have to reapply. I feel it would be better to be part of the E.U. than to be part of what in my mind seems like a little England.