Brexit: The Pyrenees, the Channel and the Ocean


I few months ago I was asked to speak at the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK) annual Symposium in London. SRUK is a grass roots organization which has evolved over the last few years to act as a reference for Spanish researchers in the UK and as a vehicle between the UK and Spain in scientific matters. With this in mind and having been asked for a perspective on Science in the UK and Spain from my experience as a researcher and teacher here, I gave a title (The Pyrenees, the Channel and the Ocean) based on three geographical barriers which acted as cultural barriers for Spanish people of my generation. I wanted to emphasize the value of breaking those barriers, how good this feels, how important this has been for Spain and how the UK as a cultural melting point with strong and (in my experience) welcoming institutions is a working example of this. Then, June 23rd, Brexit, happened.

The UK is my home and has been my home for the last 33 years. I realize that my view of the UK is a biased one (from Cambridge and London) but having lived here so long I have had a chance to experience a broader Britain and I can say that have never felt a foreigner here. Have never felt glass ceilings in Cambridge and have always found the UK an exciting and forward thinking multicultural place anchored in worthwhile traditions. It is here that I have learnt much of what I know about how to do and run Science, where I have come to appreciate the structure and value of a scientific culture that would be good to export to Spain. I have also come to appreciate the value of a society which, at the grassroots level, I find kind and integrative with much that can serve as a model for others. It is here where my wife and I have developed our lives and our careers, where our children have grown up, where I have learnt to look at and to see Spain and, importantly where over the years I have received young people in search of a future -which many times could be and has been here- and have help them to graft into this interesting place which is Britain. These people come from many places, mostly continental Europe, and have always taught me something and I have seen them change their views of their countries through their experience in the UK: it is in this cultural tradeoff that one becomes richer at so many levels. It is from here that I have seen, and have had the opportunity to contribute –in a small manner- to the enormous transformation of the biomedical sciences in Spain, particularly, over the last 15 years and my what I have learnt by being here has been crucial for this. And it is for all these reasons, but significantly because through my personal experience I am well aware of the effects that isolationism, that I am sad for what has happened and what it has revealed to me about a UK which, I guess, I did not know or I had missed. Or perhaps I had ignored.


Like many people I had a strange sense of anger and disbelief on the morning of the 24th and felt like saying much –which I did- just to vent the frustration. At the time (I guess) there were two things that fuelled my feelings. The first one was the way the debate had been conducted and what it revealed to me about an isolationist craze hidden outside London-Oxford-Cambridge-Scotland; how this debate revealed a fear of foreigners – which I had taken as part of a humorous past- and its consequences. The second one was the fact that I -and some millions like me who have lived and paid taxes for a long time, could not vote on something that mattered to us and our families- had not been allowed to vote (for those that complained about lack of democracy in the EU, what kind of democracy is that?). I felt like venting my frustration with a few lines but realized that this would be more emotional than reasoned and decided to wait. The SRUK event gave me more ammunition and some distance to reflect from. In that event I wanted to reflect on what breaking barriers meant to a country like mine from the perspective of an open one, the UK. Brexit cast a shadow on those thoughts. The SRUK symposium, where I had a chance to meet many Spanish researchers spread through the UK, was proof of the value of the open society that Britain has been up to now. At the meeting there were postdocs but also fellows, lecturers, readers, professors and all with a positive experience of their time in the UK, sharing that they have learnt here and, judging by their work, contributing to the growth of this society.


There is much that is uncertain at the moment, and not just about Science. There is also a lot of fear about what might happen and some short term consequences of this uncertainty. For example, we are all pragmatic and perhaps it is not surprising, that EU wide projects will look with some suspicion at the potential participation of UK groups. After all, Science is (increasingly) very dependent on collaboration and money that attracts money; if the UK is not going to be part of the game and wants to take more than it gives, it should be looked at with suspicion. I appreciate this and also that the result of the referendum has come as a surprise to many, that there is no plan for the situation in which we (because I and others like me are part of this society) find ourselves, but it would be good to hear soon from the government that Science, which is such a central element of this society, will continue to play the leading role that it has up to now. The repeated emails from the vice-chancellor of my University are reassuring, strengthen the concerns and single voice view of the academic community, but also highlight the extraordinary circumstances we have been thrown in.


It is very difficult to say anything new, original or inspired about the situation we live in. We are all waiting and whoever reads this is, anyways, a convert that much of what was in place with the EU is good and that what is wrong can only be repaired from being in. However, I shall say that I know what barriers do, how taking advantage of geographical and economic barriers leads to a cultural isolationism that is harmful and how when inward looking attitudes prevail, when a nation closes upon itself, Science and culture suffer and a social decay follows quickly. When I grew up in Spain, the Pyrenees were much more than a mountaneous ridge, they were a symbol of a cultural barrier that set us aside and apart from the rest of Europe. We, Spain, had the Pyrenees on one side and the Ocean on the other and although we did not have much at the time, we did not get much from the outside either. I remember the first time I crossed the into what we then called Europe (at the time we were only part of it geographically), my bewilderment at the world that I found, its wealth and its allure. Later when I crossed the Channel (the British Pyrenees) and the Ocean, this impression got magnified and I discovered a world that changed my life and one of the elements of that world that I have come to appreciate as the most important one, was its multicultural nature, what the US called “the melting pot”. Who I am has been shaped by my interactions with people from other cultures, nationalities and beliefs.


I left Spain in 1978 and have followed the transformation that it ensued from abroad, have witnessed how, as barriers fall, a country is enriched, becomes known abroad and, in contributing to the rest of the world, the rest of the world contributes to it. From the US and the UK I have seen how, over the years, Spain has turned from a culturally isolated country, to one exporting academics, to one which, using the lessons from other countries, welcomes foreigners and integrates them into its society. The benefits of being culturally open need time to emerge but it is easy to see in places like the UK and, of course, the US. Can one imagine US science without immigration?  Openness and integration are essential elements of social and academic progress because they promote tolerance and also, in the blending of views and attitudes, cultural development. In contrast with the slow development of cultural interactions, the losses created from isolation can be fast and become engrained before one realizes they exist.  Above all, what I learnt when I looked at Spain from abroad is how poor a country becomes when it isolates itself.


As I have said, it is difficult to say much that has not been said but I want to emphasize the dangers that will ensue from severing the structure of interactions that have emerged over 40 years with continental Europe. Science is a central part of those interactions and I am well aware of how much the British point of view is valued in those interactions. Brexit, if implemented in the way the Brexiteers want, will deprive Europe from the British input but, worst and importantly, slowly and inexorably it will make the UK a culturally poorer place and one in which, at a time in which science and technology are global endeavours, it will not be able to share and participate in those enterprises. As a biologist I know well the value of exchanges of genes and memes as well, and as much, as the damage that isolation can do to a group. I can hear some people thinking about the power base of British science and technology but these people will be living at the beginning of the XX century rather than in the global and interactive society of the XXI century. It is true that the UK has much that is good and solid, but by sharing it with the rest of the EU in an open manner it does much to promote its valuable institutions and influence. At the SRUK meeting I was asked what would I take to Spain from my experience in the UK. I did not hesitate: from the point of view of Science and technology, many of its institutions and their organization.


I am optimistic by nature and want to believe that in the end, sense will prevail, that whoever will do the necessary negotiations (and as of today it looks as if these are going to be hardcore Brexiteers) will see that much of what is in place in Europe is good, that freedom of movement within the EU has more positives than negatives and that this, and the structural benefits it brings along, are something worth preserving. It is possible (though I think unlikely) that the government will find a way to provide the funds that will be lost if the negotiation is not done with the UK’s real interests at heart. It is, as I say, possible, however, what the government can’t do is to buy what people coming to the UK, like I and many do, with open minds and eyes, to learn and, in the process, contributing, positively to the growth of a global society in which individual countries adapt to their idiosyncrasies the valuable aspects of other societies. You don’t lose your individuality in an open society, you enrich it. Brexit is a step backwards, the expression of a yearning for an order and a society which do not exist any more, that is encapsulated in that apocryphal headline “Fog in the channel, the continent isolated’; yes, a small island looks at a continent.


Let’s hope that sense will prevail and in the end, as the Prince says in Il Gatopardo: ‘everything has to change for everything to remain the same’.