An open letter to the people of Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, Britain, Europe, the World…

One of my colleagues has just been awarded a huge grant from the European Research Council. In the last decade or so, my department has been extremely successful in this scheme, which rewards top individual researchers. And Sheffield as a whole is an ERC powerhouse - in a 2013 report, the University - with 25 ERC grants funded - ranked joint 33rd in Europe as institution (table on p58 of this pdf). Seven UK institutions ranked higher, a further 15 had more than 10 grants funded, and to date the UK has received 50% more grants through this scheme than any other single country. Given individual grants are typically between €1.5 and €2.5M, that’s a pretty impressive return on our investment in the ERC. And the ERC is just one stream of several providing financial support from the EU for research. Groups like Scientists for EU have made the case for the importance of the EU to UK research more comprehensively than I ever could, but it’s worth answering the question, Where does this grant money go? Dispel any myths of personal enrichment of scientists (although an ERC grant does promotion prospects no harm…) - much of the money is spent on training and employing highly skilled people, as well as supporting the University as a whole which, of course, is a major local employer. European research money, then, has created and supported jobs in our city, and continues to do so. But it’s not about money.

Twenty years ago, I spent a glorious year in the south of France as an Erasmus student. Of course the climate, the climbing and snorkelling, the food and drink were memorable; the culture and language permeated and I remain francophile to the core. But it was also there more than anywhere that I learnt how to do research. Hours spent extracting, mounting and polishing tiny ear bones from month-old sea bream (I know they were a month old, because I counted the rings); having my writing torn to shreds and put back together again by my French supervisor. All of this was formative, and possible only because of European cooperation. Fast forward to last November, and I receive an email from a masters student in Paris wanting to do an Erasmus internship with me. She is now working in my group, thriving in Sheffield as I did in Marseille. There has been no movement of money in this instance, only of goodwill and good ideas.

But it’s not about work, either.

So much of what I enjoy has benefited from European membership. The positive impact that the EU has made on our environment, from cleaner air and rivers and stronger wildlife protection to increasingly better managed fisheries. The protection offered to workers, to the vulnerable, to all of us in fact. And the European Social Fund, vital to the regeneration of Sheffield City Centre over the last couple of decades and still investing billions across the UK improving human capital. Look I understand the strong draw of nostalgia (though have you noticed that nostalgia these days is nothing like it used to be…?) But harking back to the past is not useful. The last UK referendum on continued membership of the then EEC was in 1975, the year of my birth. There were around 4bn people on Earth then. There are nearly twice as many (7.4bn) now, and more or less every facet of human activity has continued to accelerate. The consequences of this - some positive, many negative - are all around us. In or out of the EU, we will still have to navigate a world of 10bn or more people. Life will not return to how it was in the early 1970s, no matter how fervently you wish it might.

But it’s not really about facts at all, is it?

If it were, you could just go to Full Fact’s excellent EU Referendum site and put together a spreadsheet and weigh up the pros and cons and make your decision based on that. But you won’t. You will pick the facts to match your existing world view (as we all do). I knew before reading that I wouldn’t be convinced by the economic case for Brexit presented here, just as you might not be persuaded by any number of Treasury reports or by anything on my MEP’s excellent app. Because this isn’t a decision that Head will take, it’s one for Gut (I’m using these terms following their sense in Dan Gardner’s Risk: The Science & Politics of Fear). Ultimately, it’s a decision about a relationship; and like any relationship, Head has some say in the major decisions, but Gut gets casting vote.

So if your gut looks at movement of migrants and refugees as a problem, then nothing I say is going to change that. If you feel that restrictions on how we exploit our environment, treat our workers, or regulate products somehow hinders innovation, then we’ll have to agree to disagree.

My gut, however, sees the EU is an imperfect realisation of a wonderful idea. My gut gets queasy over discussions of British Values (see my post on British values and British nature), but it could get on board with a concept of European Values: peace, tolerance, fairness, togetherness, and a freedom to move and work in this global economy. Of course, the EU falls short on many of these right now. But my gut says: If we cannot make this experiment in continental peace and goodwill work in Europe, what hope is there for the rest of the world?

And my gut is twisting with fear that we will turn out backs on all that is good with the EU, all the wonderful cooperation, collaboration, and conversations, the flow of people and ideas that so enriches my work and my life.

I’m going easy on the numbers, then. Politicians have been bullshitting with statistics for too long for us to suddenly drop our scepticism and believe in numbers that do not match our existing prejudices. Instead, I think we need the impassioned emotional response of We Are Europe.

So: Register to vote. Vote. The EU has problems, sure; but we can work to fix them as long as we remain participants in what is after all a long term experiment. Early results are remarkably promising. Let’s see it through.