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Neutral in the EU referendum? It’s been hard.

22 Jun 2016

CaSE Director Dr Sarah Main looks at CaSE’s positioning in the run-up to the EU Referendum.

David Beckham is for Remain. Michael Caine is for Leave. Among the celebrity statements this weekend, many newspapers declared allegiances in the EU referendum debate in the last gasp before the vote. It was way back on 20th February that most MPs declared sides, in a flurry of weekend statements following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the date of the referendum.

In the intervening time, organisations have considered their positions, often deciding to remain neutral in the debate. You could sense the frustration as Remain and Leave campaigns urged leading business figures to ‘come out’ against a backdrop of reticence by organisations concerned about the risk of alienating consumers of all kinds.

CaSE considered its position on the EU referendum nearly a year ago in July 2015. We raise the profile of science and engineering in Parliament and push for policies that will help the sector thrive among politicians of all parties. So it is imperative that we are non-partisan. We scrutinise, analyse and inform all parties but we never tell people how to vote. Extending our neutral position for elections, it followed that we would be neutral in the Scottish referendum and the European referendum. CaSE wanted to get science on the agenda of the biggest debate in town, and we wanted inform the debate with evidence. We decided to undertake research, culminating in the publication of our report The role of EU membership in UK science and engineering research in December 2015 and to look for opportunities to bring science into the wider context of the debate.

It has been hard to get the exposure to inform the debate while remaining neutral. CaSE usually does well in attracting media attention for our positions and analysis. But journalists have been honest in telling us that they just can’t get exposure for a neutral commentator. You have to be ‘for’ or ‘against’. From broadsheets to the mainstream broadcast media, we have come up against the same problem time and again. It was a fairly common experience for us to be contacted by high profile news shows to appear in a science and the EU item, only for the researcher to back-track quickly when they realised we would not take a side*. Professor Anne Glover recently called for people to “listen carefully to the full spectrum of evidence” in her comment piece for the Guardian. And it caused me to reflect how difficult it has been to get that evidence aired.

When I was able to comment, remaining neutral brought its own challenges. Maintaining a balanced neutrality while representing a community that declares itself overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership is tricky. A number of polls, including our own, show much higher proportions of pro-EU support than in the public at large. Letters with ever-longer lists of co-signatories have been published declaring support from scientists and engineers for staying in the EU. Our finding that 93% of respondents to our survey thought EU membership was a benefit to UK science and engineering has been widely quoted, including by the Prime Minister. The reasons given consistently reflect the ease of access to collaboration, facilities, networks and expertise afforded by membership of the EU, as well as welcome additional streams of funding.

For me, being neutral means scrutinising arguments on both sides of the debate and representing them proportionately. Thinking about the overwhelming statements of support, it occurred to me that most, our own survey included, represented academia more than industry. Industry invests about two thirds of the total spent in the UK on R&D, but I fear its voice has not reflected its dominant position in the UK research base. The Lords inquiry on science and the EU noted the difficulty it had in persuading representatives of industry to give evidence. At least one concern about the EU expressed by industry in the past is in the encouragement of innovation. A joint letter to the President of the European Commission in 2013 expressed concern that EU regulation driven by the ‘precautionary principle’ was impeding innovation. Instead they called for an ‘innovation principle’ to underpin the process of making regulation in Europe, in the hope that it would better balance risk with potential. Of course, whether those organisations wish to address this issue by remaining in or leaving the EU is another matter, and reflects one of the key decision points for all of us: influence from inside or outside?

CaSE is a do-er. So, while it has been difficult to navigate the tricky waters of neutrality for the last year, we will relish the opportunity to get things done once the votes are cast. I hope that the information we have brought to the debate has been useful. And I hope that our neutrality will stand us in good stead to address the issues raised in the debate and enable us to make policy, in the UK and the EU, help the STEM sector thrive. 

*ITN News at 10 and the Cheltenham Science Festival were notable exceptions and I was able to contribute to items on science and the EU for both.