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Dr Christopher Leigh of Scientists for Britain: British Science would thrive outside the EU

Guest Blogger, 24 March 2016

As a professional astronomer, I feel incredibly privileged to be a scientist in a country that boasts such a strong, rich and dynamic science base. The UK has a long and proud history of world-leading scientific discovery and innovation, and on the whole, our scientific community receives a good level of support from UK Government, UK Universities, Industry and the British public. In an increasingly competitive and technologically advanced world, our talented and industrious scientists have managed to consistently outperform, with a number of reports suggesting that we punch way above our weight in terms of scientific publications and their international impact – where publications (or scientific papers) are used as a broad measure in determining scientific output. Indeed a recent UNESCO Science report (Towards 2030) reveals that despite having only 0.9% of the world’s population and 3.3% of its scientific researchers, we generate 6.9% of global scientific publications and 15.1% of the world’s most highly-cited (or regarded) scientific papers.

Despite our strong global standing, the announcement of a referendum on our future relationship with the EU seems to have generated some concern amongst pro-EU commentators that our scientific community is less robust than it appears, and that leaving the political structures of the EU would have an unduly adverse impact on UK science.

In this comment piece, I would like to set out the reasons why I believe those concerns are misplaced, and why I’m confident that the UK science sector will continue to thrive and outperform in the event that the British electorate decides that our future lies outside the political structures of the EU project.

EU Funding for UK Science

It’s natural to worry that withdrawal from the EU might have a big impact on our national science budget, but the simple fact is that the EU supports just 3% of UK research and development activity, as was confirmed by a recent Royal Society report: The role of the EU in funding UK research (Dec 2015). Furthermore confirmation comes from 2014 OECD figures, which estimate that the 28 EU nations invested $363bn in research and development, whereas the EU contribution came in at $10.5bn. In other words, 97% of European R&D occurs outside of EU science networks. I will leave it for readers to decide whether our science base is in such a precarious position that a 3% drop in funding constitutes a ‘disaster’ for UK science.

Of course, if the UK did vote to leave the EU project, then a small fraction of the savings made on our annual contribution to the EU budget (around £19bn in 2014, of which £10bn never came back) could be used to plug any funding gap following Brexit, or indeed, used to fund our continued participation in the European Research Area (ERA) as an associate member.

Our future relationship with EU Science

On the issue of ERA membership, we note the involvement of several non-EU countries as associate members, such as Switzerland, Iceland, Turkey and even Israel (13 nations in total); so the precedent of non-EU participation has already been set. As a net beneficiary, Israel has been the most successful of these, having been involved in 2000+ EU projects worth €875 million. Furthermore, analysis of the CORDIS data (Feb 2016) relating to the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme shows that per capita, non-EU countries are typically more active in H2020 than EU nations.

So, given our scientific and academic strength, there is no doubt that ongoing collaboration with a post-Brexit UK would be in the EU’s interest. Yes, the decision to collaborate would rest with the remaining 27 EU members, but one might ask how likely it is that they would not wish to work with a close neighbour that has five of the world’s top 20 Universities (QS Rankings) where none exist in the rest of the EU, or has produced more Nobel Laureates in Science than any other EU member? Furthermore, ongoing collaboration would meet the obligations of the remaining EU states, as set out in Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty – “namely, close and peaceful relations, based on cooperation”.

Academic Freedom of Movement

Another concern of pro-EU commentators is the potential impact to UK science from any potential restrictions to free movement in a post-Brexit environment. As scientists, we fully recognise the importance of researchers and academics being able to travel between countries for the purposes of research and collaboration. However, we refute the suggestion that the free movement of scientists is in any way contingent on being part of a political union. Indeed, research by Franzoni, Scellato et al. (2012) revealed that independent countries with strict immigration controls, such as Australia, Canada and the USA, recruit a greater percentage of foreign researchers than the UK, France and Germany. The research also reveals that the primary destination for UK trained scientists is not the EU, as some would have you believe, but the USA, Australia and Canada – none of which we have a free movement agreement with. For EU supporters to suggest that the UK would not be able to recruit scientists as an independent nation thus flies in the face of hard evidence to the contrary.

European Science is bigger than the EU

As mentioned earlier, OECD figures estimate that 97% of European R&D takes place outside of EU science networks. In addition, it’s not hard to find many examples of successful intergovernmental projects that primarily involve European countries, but which are not part of the EU, such as CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the European Space Agency (ESA), EUMETSAT and the European Southern Observatory (ESO); just to name just a few from my own field of interest. Our involvement in these projects will continue regardless, and their existence is further testament to the fact that European science is a whole lot bigger than EU supported science.

Conclusion 

At the end of the day, the impact on UK science is but a small part of a much wider debate surrounding this referendum. This is a debate that goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we want to be governed by. It is therefore essential to remind ourselves that the forthcoming referendum is not a vote on our membership of a science club; it’s a vote on whether we wish to remain part of a political union, with science aspects, that has openly declared its federalist ambitions. For my own part, and with history as a guide, I firmly believe that UK Science would continue to thrive outside the political structures of the EU, and by fully embracing the era of global collaboration, our industrious scientists would continue to play a major role in both European and world science.

You can visit Scientists for Britain’s website here.

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