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Expert View

BBC reads from Brexiter textbook on threat to UK science

by David Hannay | 03.03.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Anyone who listened to the interview with Paul Nurse on Saturday’s BBC Today programme will have got a clear picture of the damage that will be done to the UK’s research capacity if we were to leave the EU without a deal. Unfortunately, presenter Justin Webb chose to counter Nurse’s points by parroting a well-worn and highly inaccurate line from the Brexiter textbook.

Nurse is as distinguished a scientist as there is working in the UK, a Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute. He explained (listen from 35 mins) the major loss in resources for research here if EU funding were cut off, given that the EU budget spends much more in the UK on research and innovation than we contribute to those programmes. In addition he spelled out the increased impediments and bureaucracy which would face EU academics, researchers and students wishing to come to the UK and why this would be seriously harmful.

Webb responded to this well-reasoned case by claiming: “If we’re not paying £39 billion to be part of the [EU] club and we need to spend an extra billion, we can do it.” This argument – a favourite of ultra-Brexiters – is dangerous rubbish.

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For a start, Webb misunderstands that the £39 billion so-called “divorce bill” is not some continued membership fee; it is the UK settling what it owes the EU from agreements made prior to Brexit happening.

The UK would be certain to be pursued for payment through international courts and tribunals if it refused to pay this money. It is not easy to see the government winning such cases given that the sums had been agreed in a treaty accepted by the prime minister last November.

What’s more, it is not even government policy to withhold such monies, as ministers have explained in Parliament. The damage to the UK’s international standing and credit-worthiness, and to our future relationship with our EU neighbours, no doubt weighs heavily in the scales of that judgement.

Webb also made a slightly different point, that in future the UK could transfer the money needed for science “from the money that currently goes to the EU”. A few minutes study of the government’s own calculations of the consequences of  no-deal Brexit for our economy would reveal a hit to economic growth of up to 9.3% over 15 years. That means much less available in tax revenue and makes the prospect of replacing EU funds for research by national resources little more than a pipe dream.

All that is without taking into account the loss of those invaluable international networks of cooperation which have enabled the UK to build up such a leading role in science and research which will be vital to our future prosperity.

When one of our top scientists clearly spells out the huge risks to UK science from Brexit, it is concerning to see the BBC obscuring this reality with misinformed arguments straight out of the mouths of the Brexiters.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

14 Responses to “BBC reads from Brexiter textbook on threat to UK science”

  • We read time and time again how the remain position is given an unfair hearing by the BBC. The points brought up by scientists such as Nurse are not presented as a political position, rather simple facts that can be verified fairly easily by those who wish to.

    Why would Webb simply parrot the words of Johnson, JRM and others without actually researching the subjects before the interview? Are they just too lazy to do their jobs properly?

    Why is the BBC no longer a trusted news source? Why do they behave like this?

  • The BBC is obsessed with balance. I’m surprised they haven’t dragged Andrew Wakefield back to make the case for the anti-vaxxers. They also defer to the tabloid press, who are not concerned with truth.

  • One of the major disappointments of the entire Brexit idiocy is the BBC and it’s rather strange interpretation of “evenhandedness”. To the extent that they knowingly or unknowingly (which indeed is worse) feed untruths to the public. Why BBC appears to be settling in Amsterdam as well is something that beats me as to why.

  • I worked for the BBC in the sixties. It was a different place then – it actually had some balls and was prepared to stand up to government on occasion. Now it is far too concerned with its image in the gutter press. Too many of the BBCs correspondents are too willing to toe the corporation line and toady to government directive. They have taken PC to totally disgraceful levels.

  • If you have a public broadcaster, dependent on the licence fee to exist, it will only be even handed and impartial if the government wants it to be.

    To have a decent public broadcaster you need a decent government with some notion of democracy.

    We don’t at present.

  • Just another symptom of Britain being led downhill by the “establishment”, with our MPs and influencers top scared of their own shadows. A disgrace. Time for a brain drain from this self destructive setup.

  • We need to hold them to account, and unfortunately that means having to listen to what they are pumping out. They are not influencing anyone who can think things through and sort out fact from fiction, but they are having a pacifying effect on the population as a whole. Auntie Beeb can be trusted can’t she? Examples like this prove that she can’t.

  • I cannot understand why the BBC does not defer to expert knowledge or indeed promote access to this knowledge for us all to hear or see for ourselves that proven evidence based facts provided by an expert in the field is an absolutely essential platform in our search for “the truth” at this uncertain and insecure moment in time.
    Hilary Gould

  • Justin then suggested that the R&D budget at Universities would be better spent at schools, as if these are interchangeable. You know which budget would be better spent on schools? The “paying off Eurotunnel because we secretly asked ferry companies with no ferries to run ferry services between ports that aren’t ready for the ferries in any case”

  • THe style of interviewing on the Today programme has deteriorated since Brexit has become a leading issue, with the possible exception of Martha Kearney and John when he has a good day. They rarely analyse the responses given to their pre-arranged list of questions and then move in to extract some unprecedented revelation hitherto unknown and rebuffed which will be a feather in their cap with their editors. There is a lot of lazy journalism around and one can easily reach for the Brexiteer Bible of unicorns, unsupported facts and fanciful rhetoric.
    In my own field of international development , there is likely to be major shortfalls in many EU-funded programmes as the participation of the UK was often seen as a guarantor of quality decisions, lack of corruption and poverty-focused delivery. Brexit is likely to change the policy ethos and the international cooperation in achieving those goals.

  • John? You can’t possibly mean John Humphreys? When does he ever have a good day? His aim in every interview is to say something so outrageous that you can even remember who he is interviewing.

    Michelle Hussein on the other hand – I remember an interview with some brexit gammon or other during the referendum campaign. When she queried whether a trade deal was possible faster than Canada (i.e. 7 years) the gammon said that we’d won the second world war in less time. She asked rather pointedly why he had felt the need to use WWII as a basis for comparison. He never have her a straight answer, but she earned a cheer from me.

  • I agree that the BBC news standard is very low. The presenters on Newsnight for instance think they are the stars, and interview each other. They should interview experts and people on both sides of an issue. John Humphrys is a disgrace. I have pretty much stopped listening to BBC radio. My radios are tuned to LBC. James O’Brien (10am to 1pm) is the best remain campaigner in the country. I watch BBC TV news at 6pm to see what they are saying to the country then watch Channel 4 News at 7pm for more balance, accuracy and depth.

  • It should also be pointed out that the tariffs imposed on our goods when exported to the EU will add up to a sum considerably greater than the cost of membership of the EU. The tariffs represent lost profits to British industry and farming, lost tax revenue to the government and lost economic growth to the country (since less money would be available for investment).

    It is much more expensive to pay tariffs than to pay for membership. Meanwhile EU countries can earn more from us.

    Well done Brexiters! Another own goal!