Monday, January 06, 2020

On leaving the EU

For someone based in the UK who works in any kind of international market, it looks reasonable to consider how his business strategy should be affected by leaving the EU. In the case of CS theory research, this perhaps runs counter to an idealised view in which all research is global, and should not be affected by squalid political considerations. The interest inherent in any specific problem or result ought to be independent of where it was studied. On a related note, it may be felt that it’s the research topic that chooses the researcher, not the researcher who chooses the topic. On the other hand, even in CS theory, ones political environment and associated social networks may have a stronger effect than we would like to acknowledge.

When I was a graduate student, Algorithms and Computational Complexity was relatively under-represented in the UK, compared with today. The UK theory community was dominated by so-called “Euro-theory”, which at the time did not seem to exhibit obvious points of contact with algorithms research. People like me had to look west for assurance that our research was of wider interest than what was apparent in our own backyard. To further justify that west-looking approach, it was clear that the USA was, in terms of research, the undisputed world leader. Then as now, it collected the lion’s share of Nobel prizes. It had industrial research labs producing leading CS theory research, such as IBM, AT&T, and NEC, while Europe had nothing similar. For me, this sowed the seeds of a defiantly Atlanticist attitude to CS theory research — appropriate for Brexit Britain, perhaps? — that the best way to pursue high-quality research was via links with colleagues in the USA.

Fast-forward to about five years ago, and my attitude had softened. The UK’s algorithms-and-complexity community steadily grew, and is much larger than it was in the early 90’s. Travel within Europe is relatively quick and cheap, with no visa issues. The European research community became a bit of a comfort-zone, while the USA’s research ethic seemed comparatively intense and high-pressure. The perennial question of “Where’s my next STOC/FOCS paper going to come from?” has always seemed less urgent in Europe.

The EU has attempted to unify Europe’s academic research activity, which is supported by diverse governments, and gives rise to diverse complaints among European colleagues. I am reminded of the “unhappy families” quote from Anna Karenina. In an attempt to give it a bit of unity, there’s some EU funding for research, concerning which we have this criticism from Andre Geim’s Nobel prize speech: “I can offer no nice words for the EU Framework programmes which, except for the European Research Council, can be praised only by Europhobes for discrediting the whole idea of an effectively working Europe.” For my part, I recently tried to get a grant from the European Research Council but they turned me down. If I were a rational agent, I should at this point be one of Geim’s Europhobes; of course in reality things are not quite so simple. But at this point I reckon the US research funding system looks like the least worst. A recent article at Athene Donald’s blog discusses the post-EU era and the idea of a DARPA-like research agency for the UK.

So, leaving the EU looks like an opportune point to dust off the above-mentioned “Atlanticist attitude”. These days China is also becoming more important. But I hope that Europe will not give up on us, but will compete strenuously with them for our attention.


Pascal said...

I hear that UK researchers often do quite well on their European project applications. If that's true, you may end up loosing financially and the rest of us will win.

Pascal said...

Sorry for the loose spelling. I completely lost it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this! Sometimes it feels that expressing anything but a "Brexit is a catastrophe" opinion takes a lot of courage...

Paul Goldberg said...

@Pascal, you are right that UK researchers have indeed done well with EU project applications. We have to hope that the UK govt will make up the loss if we crash out of that system! (they said they will do so.)

@anonymous, thanks. I'm against Brexit but in the academic community the attitude is too one-sided.