On June 23rd the British public will vote in the EU referendum. The latest YouGov poll1 shows a slight lead for the remain campaign (44% for remain, 40% for leave), but as with any poll there are methodological issues, and there is plenty of time for people to change their minds.
It is important to consider how Brexit would impact scientific research, since we are a nation which is disproportionately good at science. The UK may have just 0.9% of the world’s population, but it has 3.3% of the world’s scientific researchers, producing 6.9% of global scientific output2. How would this be affected by Brexit? As with everything else in this debate, the answer you get depends on who you ask. There are two groups campaigning for the interests of the UK research community in this debate; Scientists for EU, and Scientists for Britain.
Scientists for EU believe that EU membership is essential for maintaining strong scientific output, and that this strength is important for providing jobs, generating wealth, and improving quality of life. They have been very active, notably penning an open letter to the Times3 that was co-signed by leading figures of the research community, such as Sir Paul Nurse and Lord Martin Rees.
They believe the EU is essential for UK research for reasons of funding, collaboration, and freedom of movement. They point towards initiatives such as Horizon 2020, a science funding programme running from 2014-2020 with a budget of €80bn, as evidence that the EU is conductive to high quality research. UK researchers can collaborate with scientists across the whole of the EU, a process facilitated by freedom of movement and a common legislative framework.
They note that while national investment in UK research has declined as a percentage of GDP over the past two decades, and has currently flat-lined in real terms, EU spending on science has tripled since 2002. The UK is currently a net beneficiary of Horizon 2020 and FP7, another EU funding programme, meaning that it gets more money than it puts in.
Scientists for EU do not believe that the funding deficit which would result from Brexit would be replaced by national sources, given the failure of successive UK governments to truly invest in research. Science funding accounts for less than 0.5% of UK GDP, compared to the average 1.9% of EU nations. Indeed, of the G8 nations the UK provides the least government support for science.
On the other hand, Scientists for Britain believe that national science is strong enough and adaptable enough to flourish in an independent UK.
In a reflection of the overall Vote Leave campaign, Scientists for Britain believe UK researchers would be able to maintain access to EU collaborative networks, and that the UK could negotiate terms of involvement. They point to non-EU nations who have high levels of engagement within these networks, with some such as Israel even being net beneficiaries of funding programmes such as FP7 (Israel receives €1.6 for every €1 that it contributed to FP7).
It is important to note that access to these collaborative networks is not just a question of funding, but also of which nation coordinates the projects. This is pertinent for research because if a research group is not a leader of their field, other research groups will deliver results before them. Switzerland’s recent cancellation of their freedom of movement agreement with the EU resulted in partial access to EU collaborative networks, reducing the involvement of Swiss researchers by 40%.
Scientists for Britain do not believe there would be any issues concerning the freedom of movement of researchers, and upon Brexit would lobby groups advocating for stricter border control to ensure that scientific collaborations are not affected. They cite a study by Franzoli, Scellato et al (2012)4 showing that countries with strong border controls, such as Australia, do not have problems recruiting international scientists.
In terms of funding, Scientists for Britain contend that the contribution of the EU to UK research has been exaggerated. They note that although the UK is a net beneficiary for science, it is a net contributor overall. They therefore believe that funding deficits could easily be restored by reallocating the EU budget, and that this could even result in an overall increase in funding, boosting UK science.
This is a position with which Scientists for EU take particular issue with, believing that the international collaborations fostered by the EU are just as valuable as monetary contributions, and that reallocation of the EU budget would be unlikely to benefit UK science given how many sectors would be competing for the money.
Both sides present good points. It is therefore important to consider the extensive report5 published by the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Lords, after the committee received 72 written submissions from businesses, campaign groups, and the academic community. Of these 72 only two concluded that leaving the EU would benefit UK science, and both were campaign groups dedicated to such a cause – Vote Leave, and Scientists for Britain. Significantly, the submission from Scientists for Britain relied heavily on rhetoric, and didn’t cite a single external source of information.
Of course, the relationship between the EU and UK science is just one aspect of the Brexit debate. But it is an important one, and we can only hope that the general public will take it into account come June 23rd. Whatever the result, this referendum could be a pivotal moment for UK science.
Scientists for EU:
Website – scientistsforeu.uk
Facebook – www.facebook.com/scientistsforeu
Twitter – @Scientists4EU
Scientists for Britain:
Website – http://scientistsforbritain.uk/wordpress/
Facebook – www.facebook.com/Scientists-for-Britain-747867725349625
Twitter – @ScienceBritain