The challenges of Brexit

The challenges of Brexit

Two CiS members reflect on the challenges brought about by the recent referendum on EU membership and how we can address it as both Christians and scientists . The views expressed are those of the individuals concerned and are not intended to provide an agreed CiS position on Brexit.

Dr Rhoda Hawkins: Rhoda is a lecturer in physics at the University of Sheffield and a member of the CiS Executive Committee. She is a visiting lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Prior to taking up her lectureship in Sheffield she spent several years elsewhere in Europe doing postdoctoral research in Amsterdam and Paris.

For much of the UK scientific community Friday 24th June was a dark day. Feelings of shock, upset, fear, shame, confusion, rejection, anger, anxiety or despair have haunted many since then. Brexit threatens to be seriously damaging to UK science and UK Universities, although the full extent of this will depend crucially on what damage limitation the coming years of political renegotiations will bring. Right now there is so much uncertainty, but we are already feeling negative effects. Collaborations with colleagues across Europe are suffering. We do not know how many of our top scientists will choose to leave and how many will be forced to leave. We do not know how many of our Universities will survive loss of EU funding, economic hardship and recruitment restrictions. We do not know what long term effects changes to EU legislation may have on our environment, health or society. We sense that our world has changed profoundly. There is a growing fear of isolation from the global scientific community and increasing uncertainty   as to whether our “ivory towers” will remain intact.

The referendum result also starkly revealed aspects of our society that we’ve long tried to hide from: politicians and media that propagate lies, xenophobia, racism and deep divisions of class, education and socioeconomic backgrounds. We can no longer fool ourselves that we are a modern, global, tolerant, progressive, world leading country. We are a fragile rock in the North Sea at risk of fragmentation and isolation. And we find ourselves with many questions. Where is God in all this? How does our faith affect our response? We trust in God, not in humanity. What can we do as Christians in this situation?

Many of us and our colleagues are facing identity crises – stripped of their European citizenship or their right to remain immigration status under threat and their expert views rejected as ‘elitist’. For us as Christians, devastated as we may feel, we do have a deeper identity. No referendum can take away our heavenly citizenship [Philippians 3:20, Romans 8:35]. We are all only temporary residents on this Earth, yet we are confident that we are God’s children and that our true home is in Heaven. Can we hold on to this hope in these difficult and uncertain times? Can we reach out with this hope to colleagues around us who are in despair? I myself have had some opportunities to talk about my faith in conversations with colleagues following the referendum. One said he admired my faith. Maybe we are called to support our colleagues, to stand up for those who are EU immigrants or non-EU immigrants or to seek to influence policy over the years this will take to sort out. For some their calling will be to leave the country and seek more welcoming shores where they can carry out their world class research. For some their calling will be to stay in the UK and help try to make the most of the situation. Some CiS members may feel too young or too old to contribute much. Some may feel optimistic, some pessimistic. But we all have a role where God has put us. How does he want us to respond? What does he want us to do? Who does he want us to reach out to? And are there lessons to learn for the future about how we communicate more effectively with society at large?

So much of our ‘outreach’ both in science and in faith is to self-selected groups. How can we reach out to people we don’t normally engage with? We are good at lecturing and preaching but should we try to listen more? How diverse are our churches and how much do we chat with people in our churches who are not like us? How can we be welcoming and inclusive to foreigners in our midst who may feel the UK does not want them? How can we live in unity with those who do not share our views? There are so many challenges for us now but, in the midst of this dark world, let us not miss the opportunities God gives us to reach out in love. Maybe this situation will give us, as scientists who are Christians, a unique role in building post-Brexit bridges.

Professor John V Wood, CBE, FREng: John is Secretary of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and an adviser to both the European Commission and individual governments on international science policy especially large research infrastructures. He is the chair of ATTRACT which is an activity led by CERN and other EIROFORUM members and also chair of the Global Research Data Alliance involving researchers from 110 countries. John is also Chairman of the CiS Board of Trustees.

Identifying with one’s people despite the bleakness of the situation reminds us of Jeremiah going with his people into exile despite his warnings of the outcomes. The Brexit vote reverberated around the world where our colleagues in Africa, Asia and the Americas were aghast at the impact this would have on UK science and our world standing. Yet there are opportunities and many advanced countries are focusing a significant percentage of Science, Technology and Innovation research funds on the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Commissioner Moedas’ Open to the World policy focuses on Science Diplomacy and Delivery of the SDGs. Indeed in the UK, some research council’s money has to be directed to the grand societal challenges. Even if UK scientists cannot benefit, we should rejoice that those peoples of the world who live in poverty and tremendous inequality may receive a better quality of life than now.

Greater emphasis is now being put on our long term relationships outside Europe such as with the Commonwealth and in June 2017 the 3rd Commonwealth Science Summit in Singapore is likely to focus much more on collaboration with our old partners. There is now an urgent need to both preserve and increase the number of Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships in addition to the Chevening Scholarships for the rest of the world. Our responsibility is to act as citizens of the world, to actively try and influence political and fiscal decisions which may feel uncomfortable at times. To overcome evil by good. We should remember that while Europe itself has abandoned the Christian base of the Schuman declaration, which was the founding document of the European Union, perhaps we should now be proactive in seeking to express our faith in a way that many of our Commonwealth friends will understand much more than citizens in the UK.