Monday, 10 July 2017

Great Britons


I spent last week walking on the Western edge of the Chilterns with an Anglo-French  group.  As is our custom we took a day off from walking midweek and did touristy things.  In this location the obvious choice was Cambridge, where we took a ride on a punt on the river, which was very good value, and a walking tour round the colleges, which had the cheek to charge £20 per head  ( though as "concessions" we got it for £18)   which included all " entry fees to colleges,"  but as we didn't actually enter any, or King's College Chapel, was a bit of a rip off.

When we were told of the original of Newton's Principia Mathematica in the Wren  Library (along with the drafts and sketches for Winnie-the-Pooh), the college to which Professor  Stephen Hawkins belongs,   and pointed to the pub where Watson and Crick relaxed whilst uncovering the structure of DNA, my British bosom swelled with pride.

A quick search on the internet will tell you that Cambridge University has, at 61, more Nobel Laureates than any other university in the world (Harvard is next with 48), and there are lots of other distinguished literary alumni (E M Forster, C S lewis and Bradford's very own J B Priestley) in addition to A A  Milne.

I do not subscribe to the view fostered by our school history courses that  Britain  has been "top nation" for most of the time since the reign of Henry VIII until the Americans took over, but the Cambridge experience is a reminder  that for the past few centuries we have been among the leading nations for science, medicine, exploration, literature, politics, philosophy, engineering, economics and culture. 

Britons have made serious and significant contributions to making the world a more civilised, stimulating and comfortable place.

Nor do I suggest that, post-Brexit, no one from these islands is ever gong to write another decent book or make another scientific discovery.  But if we go ahead with Brexit not only shall we be economically poorer - that seems now to be almost universally accepted - but we are deliberately dropping out of the big league.  The implications, especially for  science, are particularly severe.

9 comments:

  1. I don't quite understand: for most of 'the past few centuries' dueruing which we were 'among the leading nations for science, medicine, exploration, literature, politics, philosophy, engineering, economics and culture', we weren't in the EU.

    Why, then, do you think that leaving the EU means 'deliberately dropping out of the big league'?

    Other countries in the world are in 'the big league' without being in the EU. For most of its history Britain has been in the 'the big league' without being in the EU.

    I simply don't get why some Remain supporters seem to think, as an article of faith, with no evidence behind it that I can see, that Britain's being in 'the big league' is entirely dependant on being in the EU.

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    1. (With regards to science, for example, one of the top examples of international scientific collaboration, CERN, is in a non-EU country.)

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    2. In the past we have adapted - moved on - according to changing circumstances. The squabbling kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England united, (or were united). into one country under Egbert of Wessex in 829. They then formed a union with Scotland (1707) and added Ireland (parts of it reluctantly) in 1801. We made treaties and formed alliances with other countries. For the peasants of Mercia or Wessex and their descendants all these steps meant a sharing of sovereignty and a move into a bigger league. We colonised other territories, built an empire (either to exploit the natives or spread the "three Cs" of Civilisation, Christianity and Commerce - take your pick.) We modified that into a Commonwealth which even some countries that were not former colonies have joined. The possibility of the Commonwealth as an alternative to the EU was thoroughly explored in the 50s, and 60s, much debated in the 1975 referendum and found to be a non-starter.

      The move into the the EU was yet another step to adapt to changing possibilities and problems. Stepping out of it is a self-harming move for reasons which are largely fantasy. Our higher education and science in particular will be among the biggest losers.

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    3. Our higher education and science in particular will be among the biggest losers

      Our higher education will be a loser? Why? The best and the brightest come from all over the world to study at Cambridge and Oxford; why does it matter one jot to a mathematical genius from, say, India or China whether Cambridge is inside or outside the EU?

      And as for science, well, if you think that will suffer then you have to explain how CERN manages to be one of the top examples of international scientific collaboration, and it's not even in an EU country.

      I don't see any reason to think that our higher education or scientific collaborations will suffer from not being in the EU, as lots of countries which are not currently in the EU manage to do well in both, so clearly being in the EU is not a necessary condition for success in either field, is it?

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    4. As I'm sure you know, CERN was established before the EU (or even the Common Market of EEC) and continue to thrive, and so it should. Similarly there are and will continue to be important links between British universities and those of other countries not in the EU. These will continue to be strong particularly in the English speaking world.

      Nevertheless British universities will be diminished if we leavle the EU. In grants for Higher Education (including research) we receive double our entitlement based on our population size.

      According to Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University (in a talk on 4th February 2017) 16% of all UK Higher Education academic staff are presently from EU countries other than the UK, and 16% of all research funding comes from the EU. The research funding will be lost (and may or may not be replaced by a UK government obsessed with austerity) and staff mobility to and from the reduced EU will be reduced. Young PhDs will be particularly affected.

      Student mobility will be reduced because presumably they will shall no longer benefit from the Erasmus scheme.

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    5. As I'm sure you know, CERN was established before the EU (or even the Common Market of EEC) and continue to thrive, and so it should

      Which clearly shows that the existence of the EU is not necessary for successful international scientific collaboration, doesn't it?

      In grants for Higher Education (including research) we receive double our entitlement based on our population size.

      'Our entitlement'? Remember this is our own money which is being given back to us! We're entitled to every penny, and more. It's countries which are net recipients from the EU budget which are getting money that they have no entitlement to.

      16% of all UK Higher Education academic staff are presently from EU countries other than the UK

      How many are from countries outside the EU? I'm guessing it's a lot. The UK has no trouble attracting foreign academic staff, and I don't see why that should change once we leave the EU. If academic staff come here from India and China, the USA and New Zealand, now, and they aren't in the EU, I don't see why they won't come from Germany and Italy after we leave the EU.

      Student mobility will be reduced because presumably they will shall no longer benefit from the Erasmus scheme

      Does the Erasmus programme really benefit our universities? Who pays the fees of those in the programme? Anyway, again, we had student exchange programmes before the Erasmus programme was invented, and we continue to have exchange programmes with countries outside the EU, so this is another thing which doesn't depend on EU membership.

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  2. Britain wasn't a nation during the reign of Henry VIII and James V, so could not possibly have been the top one. Thank goodness I didn't go to school in England if this is an example of what they have been teaching! In continental Europe, they were sometimes more specific about the part of the island they admired the intellectual work of. Indeed, Voltaire once famously said, "It is to Scotland we look for all our ideas of civilisation."

    If you get the chance, please visit Scotland's famous ancient universities where you can find no less notable alumni and where I trust you will find you are not ripped off to the same extent. Glasgow University alone was home to such as Joseph Lister the pioneer of disinfectant, David Livingston the medic and explorer, philosopher Adam Smith, TV pioneer John Logie Baird, astronomer Jocelyn Bell, physicist William Thompson (aka Lord Kelvin) and engineer James Watt among many others. It has produced no less than 3 leaders of the UK liberal party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy (who was also Rector). You can even see the original hard copy of Vince Cable's PhD thesis! Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen are quite good too.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Al, and yes, mea culpa. The "top nation" quote was borrowed from Sellar and Yeatman's "1066 and all That," as indeed was the gibe about the way history used to be taught. I'm sure things have changed a lot now. Not only was Britain not a nation in the reign of Henry VIII, strictly speaking it isn't now. We are four nations, or three and two halves if we recognise the acrimony in Northern Ireland.

      In fairness I do entitle the post "Great Britons" and, according to my textbook the Brythoni tribe gave their name to the whole island from 600BC onwards.

      However I freely acknowledge that the Scots have punched well above their weight in all spheres both before and after joining the UK, and you were wise enough to vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Pity it doesn't look as though you will be able to make a separate case.

      I also suspect that quite a number of the Cambridge Nobel laureates would not have been British, but simply studying there. I'm certain that not just Cambridge, but the entire University Sector, will be weakened by our leaving the EU: obviously some more seriously than others, and the Scottish Universities perhaps less so than some of the less well known English ones.

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  3. Perhaps it's the pubs that provide the intellectual stimulation - Watson and Crick discussing DNA, Tolkien (apparently) writing "Lord of The Rings" in "The Eagle and Child", Oxford. Tim Wotsisname is pretty confident that Wetherspoons at least will prosper after Brexit. I'm trying to feel grateful.

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