April 3, 2017
I was thinking of calling this piece ‘In defence of internationalism’ but I decided that praise is the best form of defence. And we need to speak up in favour of internationalism. After decades of increasing openness, nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in the West. We hear politicians coming out with statements such as ‘make America great again’, ‘take back control of our laws’ and ‘regain control of our borders’. The referendum vote for the UK to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US President are two events in large part caused by nationalist sentiments. Other countries in Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Austria and Hungary have movements with a strong nationalist flavour.
There are similarities in approach by the more populist politicians. First, find a real problem, for example people left unemployed by declining industries or jobs exported to lower cost economies. Exaggerate the problem and possibly invent new ones, while ignoring or denying the truth of real evidence. Seek scapegoats to blame, such as immigrants, asylum seekers or Muslims. Finally, offer a simple solution to the ‘problems’, which frequently involves putting up barriers of some sort. Some of this activity is disturbingly reminiscent of 1930s, especially the seeking of scapegoats.
Attitudes about people from elsewhere, and the language used to express them, vary from misinformed to poisonous. In the UK, for instance, there is a belief that immigrants are a cost because they claim benefits whereas, in fact, they are net positive contributors, especially those from other parts of the EU. Some of Donald Trump’s campaign claims, for example about ‘Mexican rapists’, are truly obnoxious. Since the referendum, cases of verbal and physical abuse of people from other countries have increased in the UK. One of the most extreme was the attack on an Iranian Kurdish asylum seeker on 31st March.
The problems the world faces are complicated and cannot be solved in isolation. The consequences of globalisation, and the migrations of people fleeing natural disasters or conflict, require more international collaboration, not less. So do other problems facing the world. Organised crime and terrorism, climate change and resource management do not respect national boundaries. Putting up the barriers and other naive policies won’t work and will disappoint those who voted for the people proposing them. And there will have to be much greater respect for evidence than there is currently. Otherwise, we will waste time addressing non-problems while failing to get to grips with the real ones.
As a counter to the generally gloomy tone of this piece, I’d like to give an example of just how successful international collaboration can be. In the early 1950s, no European country on its own was able to build a large-scale research facility for particle physics; a pan-European collaboration was thought to be the answer. A group of leading physicists took the initiative and CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) was established on the French/Swiss border near Geneva in 1954. Since then, the facility has grown enormously. Today, CERN is run by 22 member states, and collaborates with many other nations and hundreds of universities and other research institutes around the world, such as Fermilab in Chicago. There are more than 10,000 scientists and over 100 nationalities involved.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s biggest particle accelerator, and its largest machine. The LHC, and the detectors used to gather data from the collisions, are among the most complex pieces of technology ever built. They are right at the limit of what is technically possible. Indeed, it’s amazing that it works at all! The results have contributed significantly to our understanding of nature, including the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. As well as fundamental research, there have been many technical spin-offs; the invention of the World-Wide Web is perhaps the best known example.
I recently visited CERN with a group organisedn by the School of Physics at the University of Bristol. We visited the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector, to which Bristol physicists are contributing. (Professor C F Powell of Bristol, Nobel Prize 1950, was one of the group of founding physicists.) The LHC was not running in order to allow maintenance and upgrades to be performed, so we were able to go into the cavern where the detector is located. The CMS is about 21m long, 15m high and weighs 14,000 tonnes.
It’s remarkable what can be achieved by international collaboration when the people involved know what they are doing, work by consensus and, in particular, actually want success. It would be very helpful if some of these attitudes could spill over into politics.
Notes and sources
 Dustmann & Frattini published a detailed analysis of the fiscal impact of immigrants into the UK. The link below points to a UCL site containing highlights and a short video presentation of their findings: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/051114-economic-impact-EU-immigration . The full paper can be obtained at www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf .
 For University of Bristol, see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/physics/ and http://www.bristol.ac.uk/physics/research/particle/ . For CMS, see http://home.cern/about/experiments/cms.pbye