The EU under a microscope: does UK science want in or out?

By Tommy Pallett

As a scientist, I’d prefer every decision to be informed by accurate, unbiased, and reproducible data. We can all agree, ironically, that politics does not work this way. Nevertheless, science is entangled in the political battleground of the EU debateresearch hangs on the political agenda. Science, however, has not been at the forefront of the debate, despite being a source of national pride. We are the world leaders in it, officially. We don’t win on the global stage at many things: not in sport, material industry, economy… but science is something the UK excels at and it should be a major player in the EU debate.

Following the example of fellow scientists I will begin by declaring my own position: I intend to vote for the UK to remain in Europe.

Here’s a quick analysis of the current situation. EU science is successful and growing. The proof is that the EU lead the global research publication output with 27.5% at the end of the last funding period, according to the National Science Foundation, and that EU investment in science has trebled since 2002. But it’s not just about the statisticsthe EU cultivates a fantastic environment for research because the system is designed for multi-national collaboration. A communal funding pot allows money to be set aside for scientist travelling costs (the Marie Curie grant for example) and the freedom of movement policy facilitates projects, as any undergraduate can study and any researcher can work at any University in the EU essentially hassle-free. The best part is that the UK is in the ‘driving seat’: we won the majority share of EU funding over the last full funding period (2007-13) and have lead coordinators in more projects than any other nation in the current period (2013-20). As a full EU member we also enjoy a prominent role in shaping the policy of the European Research Council. The current situation is good. What, then, is the logic behind voting to leave?

Declared voting intentions of Durham undergraduates.

Declared voting intentions of Durham science undergraduates

I have searched for a good reason to vote Brexit, but finding arguments online with factual grounding was not straightforward. So, I attended the Science Council’s EU debate in a quest to find some first-hand Brexit motivation. That didn’t go well: one panellist was “falling asleep for a moment”, in his own words, and another compared the EU to the USSR, claiming that if we don’t leave “we’ll end up like Animal Farm”. Both were professorsI can’t say they inspired me.

Their saviour was the youngest of the vote leave panellists, who tried to convince the audience that leaving the EU opens us up to the world. His arguments had some merit: our collaboration with the rest of the world has suffered by our financial obligations to our European counterparts. But “suffer” is possibly the wrong word, and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our joint ventures with Europe to engage globally. In fairness, since it was one against three (discounting the deluded McCarthyist and the unconscious) it was an uphill struggle for vote leave. The ‘Brexiteers’ often found themselves in a muddle too. They claimed, for example, that we published most papers in collaboration with the USA and hence the EU is not instrumental to UK success. This contradicts their argument that the EU prevents us from working with the rest of the world. In fact, the implication is that there is another reason for the limited partnerships with non-EU nations: Europe spends more money on science and engineering than central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Oceania combined.

Perhaps the vote leave campaign just isn’t very articulate. Some online digging presented a report by the Royal Society that revealed only 3% of UK research expenditure came from the EU in the 2007-12 period compared to an enormous 45% from businesses. However, this is not only according to the report itself an underestimate due to technicalities on the classification of research, but also undermines the EU injection of money. As an example, the EU funds the majority of the European Space Agency as well as the majority of the International Thermonuclear Fusion Reactor (ITER) experiments. The UK is heavily involved in both.

The questions of funding everything ourselves or buying-in to EU programs (the standard vote leave arguments) are complex. Firstly, will our government, which has steadily slowed its investment in science and will be facing an economic slump in the wake of a Brexit, suddenly decide to boost its interest in research funding? Do we trust our government to make the right financial policies for UK research? The ‘Academy Schools’ and failing NHS are sterling examples of its success to date. As for buying-in as an associate member, this relies on us maintaining freedom of movement, which will be unlikely following a vote leave victory.

Engagement with European research is vital to the health of the UK science community

Professor Colin Macpherson, head of Durham’s Earth Sciences department, encapsulates the view of the majority of scientists in the UK (83% in the most recent Nature survey): “access to and engagement with European research is vital to the health of the UK science community”. As far as Durham University students are concerned, Palatinate SciTech ran a poll of 114 science undergraduates and the result was also conclusive: 87% said they would vote to remain in.

I want to finish by leaving aside the figures and the politics, and instead implore you consider the wider issues at stake, and the attitude cultivated by a Brexit. Durham University Physics professor and Director of the European Reference Laboratory for Fusion Energy, Damien Hampshire, decisively states that “to overcome many of the critical challenges on the scientific roadmap to success will require large scientific, commercial and political collaborations. Throwing in the towel on the possibility of developing large-scale partnerships within the EU… is just too defeatist”. I agree: we are in a far better position to tackle big issues such as Climate Change, cancer, energy sources and antibiotic resistance as part of a wider community such as the EU.

Leaving the EU, putting up this metaphorical wall at our border, will also make the UK less attractive to academics, both local talent and internationals. It will isolate us, and if we are to learn anything from our past it’s that communication is the key to success. Furthermore, the panel of debaters highlighted the ideological divide in the Brexiteers, who are as uncertain as anyone about what would happen in a post-EU Britain. For me, there’s enough division and uncertainty in the world already.

The EU is not perfect, but we shouldn’t sacrifice all its benefits as a result. The best way to improve it is from the inside, where we can contribute to policy and find a way to make it work for us. I will leave you with one last insight from Professor Hampshire: “as part of the EU, the UK is helping to develop a political framework for a safer, fairer and richer world… [we should] want the UK to continue to take a lead in the EU, particularly when the challenges are tough”. I agree.

Do you have an alternative view? If you think UK science is better off outside the EU and would like to challenge Tommy’s arguments, write to scitech@palatinate.org.uk

Illustration: Kenzo Ishida

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