Making the case for science

Scientists working in the US. Photo: U.S. Army RDECOM (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Scientists working in the US. Photo: U.S. Army RDECOM (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I’ve been thinking lately about how people argue in favor of skilled immigration. How do you make the case that a country ought to bring in more highly educated foreign workers? How do you convince voters and politicians to make it easier for skilled migrants who are already in the country to stay for the long term?

These arguments are coming up a lot in the British media lately, as UK politicians and voters debate whether or not to stay in the European Union. A major sticking point between the UK and the EU is the EU freedom of movement rule. In principle, any EU citizen can live and work anywhere else in the Union. Some Brits are terrified that migrants from less economically dynamic parts of the Union will overtake their country and steal their jobs. (Not to mention the migrants who are not EU citizens!)

If the UK leaves the EU and requires European migrants to get a visa like everyone else, there would be fallout across the British economy. Europeans work in many different sectors, in many different income and skill levels. They’re farmworkers and plumbers, but also bankers and researchers.

A few days ago in The Guardian’s Higher Education section, Nerea Irigoyen and Eduardo Oliver, two Spanish researchers working in the UK, published an editorial warning their British colleagues that a “Brexit” (as a British exit from the EU is commonly called) would have dire consequences for British science. The article ended with a call to action:

It’s time for the UK science community to speak up for all its members, to make it clear that British science is world leading due to its international researcher base, and to explain clearly that a Brexit ushers in the mood that will chase away talent in droves.

But what should UK scientists say when they speak up? They listed some common arguments advocating for skilled immigration throughout the editorial. These arguments fall into three broad (and often overlapping) categories of arguments:

  1. Science for the sake of science arguments
  2. Economic arguments
  3. Nationalist prestige arguments

These ways of framing skilled immigration have different strengths and weaknesses. As someone who has been thinking about this topic from a social science perspective, I am skeptical of all of them–though that does not mean that they can’t be effective in mobilizing support for the cause.

Science for the sake of science arguments

These arguments assume that science is inherently valuable and serves the greater good. Thus, society and government should support science to the extent that it is possible. For example, the authors argue that the best science is done by the best scientists, and making it hard for the best scientists to work together would be a major impediment to scientific progress:

“The main concern for senior researchers, including principle investigators, will be to secure funding to attract the best researchers…. The feasibility of recruiting good scientists from abroad for research projects will be also a major concern for principal investigators…. Finally, PhD students will be less prone to come to the UK if there is as a shortage of studentships for non-British citizens.”

The premise of this argument is probably true, though it can be tested and possibly proven wrong. The issue with this line of argument is that it may not be as convincing to the general public as it is to scientists. The general public might not disagree with the logic or the sentiment, but is your average, non-scientist Joe or Jill going to care enough about the scientific enterprise to be convinced by this framing? I would argue that this is not the best way to frame the issue for a wider audience.

Economic arguments

Another set of arguments links scientific progress to economic growth, and uses economic logic to explain what the country might lose by restricting skilled immigration. For example:

  • “These migrants have contributed to more than £20bn since 2000 to British economy according to a recent study.”
  • “In most of these expat cases, their countries of origin paid for their education and training and may never get that investment back. Instead, Britain will benefit from the most productive years of these individuals.
  • “In other words, they are low-cost, highly-talented researchers.”

These kinds of arguments appeal to the public because they are framed in a way that makes sense to someone who lives and works in a capitalist economy. Economic growth is seen as an unequivocably good thing. Spending less and getting more is also seen as a good thing.

I have misgivings about treating workers as if they were only valuable for their labor. One must also think about who benefits the most from employing skilled scientific workers, and how this might change local, national, and global economies. However, economic thinking is a powerful force in politics today. From a purely political standpoint, I think that this line of argument is significantly more promising than arguing for science for the sake of science.

Nationalist prestige arguments

An alternative line of argument appeals to the public’s sense of nationalism and pride in being British. In this way, it is directly responding to nationalist arguments for leaving the homogenizing, borderless EU. A nationalist argument for skilled migration would invoke the pride and prestige that science and innovation bring to the country. As the authors write early on in their editorial:

“Scientists move to the UK because they want to improve their career prospects by working with outstanding research teams in a country that is world leading in science and innovation.”

If the UK were to leave the EU and require visas of European workers, they argue that:

  • Scientists would not want to come to the UK if work visas remain numerically capped.
  • Early career scientists, especially, would be put off by the fairly high salary minimum for skilled work visas.
  • Leaving the EU means less research funding from European institutions, which makes the UK an even less attractive destination.
  • Implicitly, this lowers the prestige of British science in the eyes of the world and hurts the self-image of the British nation.

To a skeptic of economic nationalism like me, such an argument rings hollow. Given that science is so global, why does it matter that discoveries and innovations are made on British soil, especially given that a large proportion of the people doing science in the UK now aren’t British? And there are plenty of other counterarguments that one could make. For example, the US continues to attract large numbers of international scientists despite its restrictive immigration programs. If UK science were world leading, wouldn’t researchers continue to come regardless of the bureaucratic hurdles?

However, like the economic arguments, this line of thought might actually be politically effective, given how strongly people tend to feel about their country. A very effective argument might combine nationalist and economic logic, or even all three. I found one great example in another editorial about Mexican scientists in the US:

For the most part, the United States has not paid for the education and training of these talented newcomers. They were educated in Mexico, and many who obtained graduate degrees did so with the support of the Mexican government — in some cases, in the form of scholarships to study at U.S. universities. In many ways, the United States is getting a free ride.

Many of Mexico’s best minds are now contributing to American (and global) science on the strength of intellectual assets they developed in Mexico. Their achievements have contributed only marginally to the growth and prestige of Mexican academia and industry, and their absence from their native country deprives young Mexican students of important teachers and mentors.

This selection evokes Mexico’s national pride, mentions the economic cost of training these researchers, and even brings up the development of science as a noble goal in and of itself. By plugging in some new words, I’ve made up an argument for keeping British science in the European labor market:

For the most part, the United Kingdom has not paid for the education and training of these talented newcomers. They were educated in Europe, and many who obtained graduate degrees did so with the support of European governments — in some cases, in the form of scholarships to study at UK universities. In many ways, the United Kingdom is getting a free ride.

Many of Europe’s best minds are now contributing to British (and global) science on the strength of intellectual assets they developed in Europe. Their achievements have contributed only marginally to the growth and prestige of British academia and industry, and their presence in this country gives young British students important teachers and mentors.

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