This week I have attended a very interesting conference about European Science in Manchester (ESOF2016), which has been very much conditioned by post-Brexit debates and its impact on science. The decision of leaving the European Union will have a direct impact on science, both in terms of reducing EU funding for European collaborative projects and in altering the flows of talent that can currently be found in British universities. Without any doubt, science is a global issue and therefore we are living quite challenging facts that will affect the future of European science.
I was invited to contribute to a session organised by Kieron Flanagan from the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, alongside thought-provoking contributions from James Sumner, Alice Cliff and Michael Contaldo. The session was named ‘the ghost of the past’ and tried to highlight an often neglected issue in innovation and policy studies, which is the role and use of the past for science and policy-making. Economic geographers have started to take the issue seriously and there are several contributions that tackle how past affects economic development in places. But in general, history is seen as a constraint that shapes paths in places more than an opportunity to learn and build from. That is to say that history matters but what really matters is the use we make of history for learning.
In the session we discussed this important issue through an interdisciplinary lens and using narratives from two city-regions with a common industrial past but different current paths and challenges: Greater Manchester and the Basque Country.
The Basque Country’s narrative was built on the basis of the work done with colleagues from Orkestra and UPV-EHU and explores the different stages of Basque STI policy with a special focus on mechanisms of continuity and change within those stages. Since the 1980s the strong political commitment to industrial competitiveness from different regional governments has guided the regional development path. These shared beliefs and guiding discourses around the importance of competitiveness and innovation for regional development have been a constant element in the Basque Country, and can also been seen in current times of smart specialisation strategies. This language of innovation was also present in Manchester, in a city in which science history is an identity signal for a very much internationalised city.
However, narratives or stories are made by people and they build on individuals and places. It is important to take into account the role that these individuals had in the past to understand and learn from the future, about success but also about failures, giving also then importance to the telling of stories of failures.
Coming then back to Brexit, it will take time and perspective to see whether it can be considered a shock that changes paths or just a gradual change, not only for science paths in Manchester and the rest of UK, but also for European paths. But that is another story…