Brexit, Science policy, and Unintended Consequences of Trading Lemons.

If you’re a plant scientist in the UK or EU (or a scientist of any kind), please do use the comments section below to talk about what Brexit might mean for you and your career. This post can serve as a repository of accounts about how policies impact STEM and vice-versa.

Meme from 9Gag via Christophe Résigné Facebook page.
Meme from 9Gag via Christophe Résigné Facebook page.

Though the precise nature of a post-UK EU isn’t fully known, it is safe to say that funding for science that is EU dependent will no longer be available in the UK in the same way it is now. Further, the flow of people, the primary thing that fuels science, will be restricted as well (thanks @lexbwebb). Plant sciences make up a very small portion of funded science– in fact plant sciences are likely underfunded as they are in the United States. Any cut to funding could further de-prioritize plant science research that is already low. 

Detlef Weigel had an optimistic Tweet that collaborations should continue:

And no doubt they will in some form, but the administrative hurdles to doing so have increased. Joint grants to the EU (or even individual national funding agencies) are more complex. Not to mention that the larger effect of the Leave vote seems to make the UK feel like a less welcoming a place to many, including those in STEM that struggles with diversity as it is.

Science ideally breaks down barriers by seeking answers to questions. Often that means seeking out expertise wherever it exists. That can make it both authoritarian (nature is the final arbiter- e.g. Gravity is a thing, the Earth is round, evolution happened and is happening) and anti-authoritarian (climate change is very much happening and denying it does not make it any less true fossil fuel companies) at the same time. Fundamentally, science and innovation thrive in cultures that are open and where people aren’t afraid to ask questions. It is literally using knowledge gained by testing the natural world to inoculate against complete BS– and just what body of information is more likely to be credible than others (& what is simply not yet known).

Scientific collaborations push frontiers and bring people together to expand knowledge and hopefully have that knowledge expand policy and be applied (or as often happens, the invented technology to answer some curiosity-based question like “Do gravitational waves exist?” gets applied to all sorts of other industries). Science also tends to be an investment in the long term. It is through science that we’re able to maintain 7 billion people on the planet. Global collaborations and sharing the fruits of scientific work define science more and more.

Though it is far from perfect in this regard, science needs to be inclusive. There are signs that this is changing- more women work in STEM than ever have before. And the people of Flint, Michigan were finally listened to by a scientist and are now addressing the lead problem in their water, as two examples. Even seeing collaborative science projects led in Africa like the beta-carotene enriched banana in Uganda are good signs.

Again, there is a long way to go, and for STEM, it feels like the Brexit vote is a step backwards (even though it is a lot broader than just a vote affecting those in STEM fields).

Of course there’s more than just science in the world. Economics, politics, and other fields also have a say in what happens to STEM. STEM relies on public funding these days and increasingly, complex arrangements with the private sector to transfer technologies as public funding has either been cut or been flat in most of the world since the 2008 recession. 

Part of Brexit may have been about jobs and people feeling constantly down on their luck. The thing is, Brexit may negatively impact STEM funding, and yet STEM creates jobs by creating whole new industries and sectors of economies. The return on investment is huge over time. Science alone can’t guarantee fair wages, however, nor assuage uncertainty in all cases. 

It does seem like Brexit throws a lot of uncertainty where none needed to exist. But such are the complexities of our modern world, something that leave voters may have been railing against with their vote,  a desire for a simpler time when each person didn’t have to rely so blindly on systems they have little influence over. A desire for more control over their lives (most scientists would love that too, I think, but the universe and nature tend to tell us just how complex the world is and how much of a wonder it is that it exists at all and how amazing it is we’re here to observe it for our brief lives). 

With that in mind, here’s a story, involving the UK tangentially, that starts with agricultural tinkering that led to an economic force we still deal with today: The Italian Mafia (specifically the one originating on Sicily). 

Curing Scurvy and Global Lemon Trade

Sailors in previous centuries had problems with scurvy that resulted from nutrient deficiencies on long ocean voyages. Through a lot of trial and error, it was determined that citrus fruits were able to stave off scurvy, though the mechanism for how it did so (restoring Vitamin C) was not worked out until the 20th century.

Citrus fruits originate from Southeast Asia and for the most part, the ones we consume today are hybrids of hybrids of three wild species crossed together in various ways. One result is the Lemon. Lemons were imported and grown in Sicily in the 18th century. And the British navy eventually became a major buyer of Sicilian lemons for its sailors.

Lemons were valuable. And they were popular in Italy. The Medici family apparently had quite a collection. Like the spices that fueled colonialism, they were in demand and a form of wealth in plant form. Like Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about grape vine growing in California, the right grapes on a particular soil eventually made great wine.

Lemons could grow in Sicily, but only in certain parts after a huge investments in creating the infrastructure to grow lemons (irrigation, walls to protect the trees, the trees themselves). Getting going took years. And in Sicily, contracts between land owners for resources were the initial rackets. And then destruction of property for those farmers not complying with contracts or paying for protection money. Thieving of lemons happened too. Lemon growers paid for protection of their investment and the newly minted mafia expanded into contracting the labor involved in creating a new lemon farm.

The UK eventually switched to limes grown within the Empire to protect it’s sailors from scurvy, though limes don’t work as well as lemons because they have a lot less vitamin C and scurvy did become a problem again on certain voyages. It is why poeple from the UK  got dubbed Limeys.

Though I haven’t been able to find research on it, the U.K. Switching from Sicilian lemons may have been part of the incentive the Sicilian Mafia needed to diversify their operations into other places and industries. The loss of one major client required finding new sources of revenue. Once it took root, it was able to grow. 

With the Brexit vote from the EU, as the with bringing lemons to Sicily, there are unintended effects that can be felt for centuries. We don’t yet know what all of them will be with Brexit, but there certainly was an immediate reaction in stock markets and an apparent uptick in expressed xenophobia and that’s just in the first few days after the vote (and I know, both could be argued as intended consequences depending on your point of view). 

This is another area where STEM is valuable. It tends to take a longer and more considered view- it is deliberate in its progress, taking small steps forward, rarely huge leaps. And it really does invent the future.

Thanks to the great podcast Gastropod episode about the history of citrus. Their interview with writer Helena Attlee about her book ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’. Go listen to this episode and all of their other episodes. it’s great.


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