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Professor Michael Merrifield on why staying in the EU would be good for British Science

Guest Blogger, 29 March 2016

To put my cards on the table, I should say up front, that, by and large, I believe that the European Union is a good thing.  That’s not to say I am an uncritical fan – I think the Common Agricultural Policy is fairly indefensible, and the travelling circus of the European Parliament is downright embarrassing – but overall I believe EU membership to be a net benefit to the UK in general and to science in particular.  I was motivated to express at least part of why I support our continued membership by a blog entry on this site from a fellow astronomer, Dr Christopher Leigh, who expressed the view that British science would thrive if we left.  He makes a plausible case to which I felt obliged to respond, partly by way of rebuttal, but also to clarify the arguments in my own mind.

One of the principal arguments put forward by Dr Leigh and others is that, as a net contributor, the UK could put at least as much money into science outside the EU simply by investing some of the savings.  As one of the richest countries in the EU, I have never quite understood why we shouldn’t be expected to make a net contribution, just as one would expect the wealthiest individuals in a country to make a net contribution to society through their taxes, but it is nonetheless factually correct that there could be a saving to be made if we left (although the level of net savings is certainly open to debate).  Strangely, this argument is often accompanied by a claim that scientists are motivated by self interest in supporting continued EU membership because it funds their research – this is obviously inconsistent with the statement that science would be better funded outside the EU, so clearly at least one of the arguments is false.

The resolution relies at least in part on the fact that most scientists simply do not believe that science would be better funded if the money all came directly from the UK government rather than via the EU.  Our government chooses to spend only around 0.5% of GDP on R&D funding as compared to an EU average that is a third higher; unless the Government had a change of heart on leaving, it is unlikely that science would be at the same priority for funding as it is within the EU.

However, as Dr Leigh points out, the levels of funding for science that the EU contributes directly are relatively modest.  The point, though, is that they act as a strong catalyst to make our science very successful.  Within my own field of astronomy, take the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) as a simple example.  This excellent initiative engages school children, particularly from poorer backgrounds, with STEM subjects by allowing them to make observations with robotic telescopes around the World, encouraging them to pursue science and engineering studies to the benefit of the country.  It also, coincidentally, employs Dr Leigh.  The NSO was initially set up with funding support from the European Social Fund, and continues to receive EU funding for its top-quality educational work.  While one cannot say unequivocally that it wouldn’t have been established anyway, it certainly didn’t do any harm to have the EU support to help unlock other sources of funding.

As Dr Leigh also points out, there are plenty of European collaborations that are not directly related to the EU.  Once again in astronomy, the European Southern Observatory is arguably the foremost astronomical organisation in the World, and the UK is a key player in this non-EU inter-governmental collaboration, taking a leading role in developing instruments for its enormous 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) that will revolutionize astronomy in the coming decades.  However, it is worth asking why we have such a strong position in this project.  This can be traced in part to the fact that we have been involved since the outset in developing the case to build the telescope and the associated technical R&D, and our central role in that process was facilitated because much of this preparatory work was funded by the EU.  Once again, our position at the heart of things as an EU member has meant that relatively modest levels of EU funding have placed us in key positions in this exceptional project.

It is this ability to catalyse science that the EU seems uniquely placed to do.  And it goes well beyond just money: the ability to transfer staff and students freely between institutions, share resources, and build bigger facilities than any individual country could afford (like the PRACE supercomputing programme) all allow UK scientists, in collaboration with colleagues across the EU, to develop cutting-edge research programmes that are the envy of many in other countries.

Again, Dr Leigh points out that other countries can obtain these benefits by buying into EU science programmes without being a member.  However, this à la carte approach is not without its downsides.  By removing ourselves from the EU, we would no longer have a central role in deciding what research priorities should be, so we would simply have to buy whatever the EU decided to offer.  We could also find ourselves in the bind that currently ensnares Switzerland, whereby it is required to maintain free movement with EU nations in order to keep its membership of these science programmes, and will lose most access to them at the end of 2016 if it doesn’t ensure that its laws allow such movement.  Although the Out campaign is notably unwilling or unable to say what Out actually looks like, certainly some of its proponents believe that it would not involve continued free movement between the UK and the EU, so we may end up not having the option to buy into the EU science programme even if we wanted to.

As we move on in the 21st century, science becomes an ever bigger and more complex undertaking, and to be a World leader at it we need to scale up our activities and collaborate in larger groups than any single country can afford.  The EU is certainly not the only way to develop such collaborations, but it has already demonstrated that it is one of the most effective.  And bear in mind that investment in science pays back many times over to the investors even where the area of research has no obvious direct financial return: the web browser you are reading this article on was a direct by-product of particle physics research at CERN.  I am not sure how one should quantify the financial return that the collaborations catalysed by our EU membership will produce – personally, I don’t even think they should be our primary motivation for doing the science in the first place – but somehow we do have to factor them into the equation as we decide whether or not to take an irreversible step that would distance us from the EU’s highly successful scientific community.

Professor Merrifield is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Nottingham.


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