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Helping or Hindering Science?

The EU, via the European Research Council (ERC), supports EU based scientific research through grants allocated on the basis of “peer-reviewed excellence”, regardless of political, economic or geographic considerations. The UK contributed nearly £4.3 billion or EU research projects from 2007 to 2013, but received nearly £7 billion back over the same period. If Britain left the EU would it also have to leave the EU’s science networks? What would this mean for UK science?

For answers, we asked Chris Leigh, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, and member of “Scientists for Britain” – a group set up to counter the political narrative that a vote to leave would cause undue hardship to UK science – and Mike Merrifield, a professor at the University of Nottingham.

If the UK left the EU, what would be the impact upon collaborative research projects within the EU and outside of the EU?

Mike Merrifield: The naïve answer to the impact on collaborations outside of the EU is that there wouldn’t be one since the EU is not dependent on our membership, but the reality is rather subtler. For example, in my field of astronomy, arguably the premier research organization in the world is the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is run under an inter-governmental agreement that has nothing to do with the EU. ESO is currently building the largest optical telescope in the world, which will revolutionize astronomical research in the coming decade, and the UK has key positions in building the instrumentation for this amazing facility. A large part of the reason why we have such a strong role in this project is that we have been closely involved in developing the case to build the telescope, and a significant amount of this work has been funded by the EU. Thus, even though it is not an EU project, our very successful role in it can, in major part, be traced to our EU membership. This is also another clear example where relatively modest amounts of funding, in combination with the collaborative environment that the EU science programs foster, has catalyzed a world-leading scientific project.

Chris Leigh: If anything, collaborative work outside of the EU would increase. At present we have a situation where, in order to control overall inward migration, the UK government is having to restrict entry from non-EU countries in order to counteractmigration from EU countries, which it has no control over. This means that non-EU scientists are having to cover additional costs and jump through many hoops in order to work in the UK. In terms of the EU, one only has to remember that the EU supports just 3 percent of the UK’s research and development activity to know that the impact won’t be huge. Combine this with the existence of major European intergovernmental (i.e., non-EU) projects and common sense dictates that European science is so much bigger than EU science.

How important are EU science programs to UK science?

Merrifield: The main attraction isn’t actually the funding, but the structures provided by Horizon 2020 and other EU initiatives. For example, the EU provides very effective mechanisms for setting up exchange programs of both junior and senior researchers, with integrated training programs and other ways of sharing expertise.

Leigh: There are some universities and research groups that rely on EU funding, but for the bigger picture, the EU only funds around 3 percent of the UK’s research and development base. Even in the extremely unlikely event that we cut all ties with EU science networks, it would be hard to argue that the overall impact would be much greater than this 3 percent figure. It’s also important to note that EU science funding represents around 3-4 percent of our net contribution to the EU project.

Steve Bates: The UK is a net recipient of EU funding for its health research, accessing more funding per capita than any other country. Since 2007, UK scientists have received around £3.7 billion from the EU. As of 2011, the UK won 16 percent of all FP7 funding to EU member states and 27 percent of European Research Council funding. These fractions are higher than the overall UK contribution to the EU budget (about 11.5 percent) and the UK’s share of overall EU spending (about 5.6 percent).

Would Brexit mean an end to the UK’s participation?

Merrifield: Those in favor of Brexit point to countries like Israel, who are “associated countries” of the Horizon 2020 program, and hence can benefit from the funding that it offers. Those opposed to Brexit point to Switzerland, which has a longstanding involvement with these programs, but their agreement is tied in with free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU, and unless they extend their current free movement arrangements to include Croatia, they will lose access to EU science programs at the end of 2016. One cannot say definitively how closely the UK would remain associated with these programs post-Brexit.

Leigh: Switzerland had an agreement in place with the EU but, after they voted against free movement in a referendum, they reneged on that agreement. The UK situation would be different as any negotiations and subsequent agreement would have to be determined in the two years after a Brexit vote. I’d also point out two things. Firstly, Israel is a net beneficiary from their involvement in EU science networks and yet has no free movement agreement with the EU. Secondly, CORDIS data shows that Switzerland is still very much involved in EU science networks – more so than the UK on a per capita basis. The only difference is that the Swiss government picks up the tab for some of the projects. Many worry that the EU might ‘punish’ the UK for voting to leave the political structures of the EU, in part, by withdrawing trade and science cooperation. However, this would be against the EU’s own treaties (Lisbon – Article 8), which obliges EU countries to establish close and peaceful relations with neighbouring countries, based on cooperation.

In terms of the UK’s arrangement with the EU post-Brexit, what would be the best case scenario of UK science?

Merrifield: The best-case scenario is that we do not leave the EU. The second best case is that we leave the political union but remain in the free trade agreement through membership of the EEA of EFTA, which should allow us to continue to be involved in the EU science programs that have served us so well in the past, albeit with a somewhat reduced influence on the future direction of those programs.

Leigh: At Scientists for Britain, we would support associated membership of the European Research Area with an Israeli style agreement, but obviously recognizing the strengths and characteristics of the industrious and dynamic science base in the UK.

What would be the worst case scenario?

Merrifield: The worst case scenario would be that we leave the EU and the free trade area, and end up being left only with “third country” involvement in the science programs, which would effectively end most of what we currently achieve through these programs.

Leigh: Even if EU politicians tried to impose scientific barriers, scientists are an industrious lot, and would establish ways of collaborating outside of EU networks. You have to remember that science has always found a way of transcending politics, and has even seen the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking (no less) visiting scientists in Moscow at the height of the cold war. Whether in or out of the political structures of the EU, scientists around the world will continue to collaborate, in order to push forward the frontiers of human knowledge.

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About the Authors
Michael Merrifield

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

Chris Leigh

Chris Leigh is an Astronomer at Liverpool John Moores University, Astrophysics Research Institute, UK.

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