Brexit and science: major report claims UK leaving the EU would threaten world class research

A study from Digital Science has concluded that Britain’s science industry will be a net loser, should voters push Britain to leave the EU next month. The report examined UK science funding over the past decade, and revealed the extent to which areas of British research relied on EU contributions. Cancer research received 40% of its funding from Brussells (£126m), while computer sciences recieved over a third of its funding (£1bn) from the EU.

“The UK is dependent on EU funding to a concerning level,” Daniel Hook of DigitalScience told The Guardian. “On one side, it’s great to be successful, but on the other, if it’s taken away from us, in real terms that is a significant cut in funding.”

On 23 June, Britain will go to the polls and vote on the country’s membership of the European Union for the first time since 1975. The whole nature of the relationship has changed in the 40 years since then, and there’s plenty of point and counterpoint, both factual and, uh, less so. Public votes, and especially referendums, are ripe for negative campaigns where facts are an afterthought, and this has been a particuarly spiteful campaign with eye-rolling quantities of fear-mongering on both sides of the debate.

Alongside issues of sovereignty, security and economic growth, science is a hotly debated area. For starters, there’s €1 billion of Horizon 2020 funds for UK science that could just vanish.

There are voices on both sides of the debate, although the vocal majority of them are arguing against Brexit. Here is what they’re saying.

Science: The arguments against Brexit

The most significant analysis suggesting that Britain’s science output would suffer is from the Office for National Statistics, which reports that between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed 5.4 billion of funding to the EU’s R&D programme, but received 8.8 billion in return. The UK is a net contributor overall, of course, so future governments could simply put more money into science, but there’s no guarantee that they’d place the same emphasis on science that the EU has in the past.

Science minister Jo Johnson echoed these concerns when he addressed the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) annual lecture in January, saying: “European research funding is, in many ways, an example of how the EU can get it right. While applying for funds must become simpler, especially for smaller firms, the key thing is that we have successfully argued for research money only to flow to where the best science is done, regardless of geography, regardless of political pressure.

No-one doubts Britain could stay a science player outside of the EU. Indeed, some of our universities have been successful for longer than many of its member states have even existed. But the risks to valuable institutional partnerships, to flows of bright students and to a rich source of science funding mean the Leave campaign has serious questions to answer.”

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse backs this view, too, arguing: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, [to] people and to investment in science. That, combined with mobility (of EU scientists), gives us increased collaboration, increased transfer of people, ideas and science – all of which history has shown us drives science.” He concludes that being a collective continent gives Europe a similar clout to scientific “powerhouses” such as America and China.

At the time of writing, there are 35,313 members in the “Scientists for EU” Facebook community.

Scientists for Brexit

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, of course. Scientists for Britain is the main Pro-Brexit group of scientists, and claims to have around 150 members. Spokesman Professor Angus Dalgleish from St George’s Hospital, University of London, told the BBC: “We are standing up against what is a very large body of people who feel that if we leave the EU it will be a disaster for funding and collaboration – and we completely refute that. The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save.”brexit_impact_on_science

Dalgliesh argues that scientists are not more outspoken on the issue because it’s an unfashionable cause to back in research circles, and that the arguments used by the “Remain” group are largely based on self-interest. “Many of the more junior people – post-docs – are beginning to ask questions to people like me who are [senior enough to be] able to express these views.”

Science is likely to be only a small issue in the minds of most voters when the country goes to the polls on 23 June, taking a backseat to matters of economics and sovereignty, but with Britain a major player in the world’s scientific development, institutions around the world will undoubtedly be watching developments with interest.

We will update this piece as more scientists give their views on the matter.

READ NEXT: Science in 2016 – what do we have to look forward to?

Images: Bobby Hidy and NTNU used under Creative Commons

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