Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Note on the EU referendum, ex post

The EU referendum has been interpreted as showing a nation divided by age (older people more likely to have voted Brexit), or possibly affluence, or alternatively geography (as in: Scotland and London more likely to have voted Remain). But plenty of older people voted Remain, likewise there was no clear consensus either way in any geographical region. Maybe we’re actually a nation divided by social networks: people seem to have voted the same way that “everyone” they knew voted. We all exist in social micro-environments, and in the case of academia, they are further subdivided into what might be called nano-environments. I may be biased towards the social-networks story, having dabbled in the associated theoretical problems that have been considered in the Computer Science theory literature. Perhaps the UK’s social network has not one, but two, giant components. If so, that has implications for social mobility. It may be felt that one of them is more effective than the other, when it comes to creating career opportunities for its members.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Notes on the EU referendum

The June 2016 issue of the Oxfordshire Observer, a newsletter from the local Liberal Democrats, had the headline “Remain for prosperity”, and from the article: “Thousands of jobs in the county have been created or supported by EU funding. Oxfordshire receives millions of pounds of investment in innovation and research from the EU.” This helps to explain why most members of the academic community, myself included, intend to to vote to remain in the EU. I worry that the article is Oxford-centric and that all this “investment” is at the expense of other places. Now that council leaders of the main northern English cities have also come out in favour of remaining in the EU, that concern is alleviated.

Concerning Europe’s research funding, I have some sympathy with remarks made in Andre Geim’s Nobel Prize lecture, Random Walk to Graphene, which (as suggested by the title) is worth reading in full as a heartening reminder of the hit-and-miss nature of scientific advances. On pages 77 and 92, EPSRC’s responsive mode comes in for high praise while the EU Frameworks programme “can only be praised by Europhobes”.

EU membership is convenient when it comes to offering jobs and student places to other EU nationals. A downside is that we maybe don’t do enough in UK academia to nurture home-grown talent. According to these HESA figures, about 35-40% of UK-based academics and researchers in science and engineering are not UK nationals. It’s entertaining to imagine what would happen in the UK academic community (at least, some parts of it) if we were suddenly disallowed to appoint foreign candidates to academic posts. It might help the UCU’s claim that “Universities need to answer some hard questions about how they will continue to attract and retain the best talent when pay is being held down…”

Another argument for remaining in the EU is that the job market mobility may, over time, exert pressure to reverse the UK’s debt-based approach to student funding. That is, if it’s easy for someone to get a degree here and then go elsewhere to live and work, then the debt (repayable via UK taxes) doesn’t get repaid, and an incentive is in place for productive people to study in the UK but to move elsewhere.

For balance, here is the best article I have seen so far in support of voting to leave.

I wrote the above before finding this blog post of Tim Gowers in support of remaining, in which he compares leaving the EU to defecting in the Prisoner's Dilemma. It surely deserves a mention/link.