Stick or Twist?

On the 23rd of June, the UK will go to the polls in a historic referendum to decide whether to remain in or leave the European Union. We've asked a scientist from each side of the debate to tell us how they think UK science would be affected by a 'Brexit' and what the EU does for scientists in the UK

The Biologist 63(3) p10

In terms of science, the UK gets more out of the EU than it puts in – and could never recreate this huge scientific community on its own, writes Dr Claire Skentelbery

The UK has been at the forefront of scientific discovery and invention for hundreds of years. More recently, it has done brilliantly within EU research: we lead more projects than any other country; we are second in terms of the number of people involved in EU projects; and we are second in terms of finance received in the last Horizon programme (€8.6bn).

In simple monetary terms, UK science gets far more out of the EU than it contributes and it leads the way in collaboration terms. Our work spearheading the huge collaborative scientific community between EU countries has cemented our global position in science far beyond what our domestic investment in science of just 1.63% GDP could achieve (which is more than 40% lower than Germany's investment in science).

The 28 countries of the EU now form a community where collaboration and funding for scientists from industry and academia can be achieved, and science supported, from basic research through to the launch of new products and multinational clinical trials. It particularly supports small to medium enterprises, which is the key to translating university science inventions into products and processes.

The EU transforms Europe from a complex and fragmented set of regions into a more unified platform through which scientists can work together easily. All 28 EU countries have full access to the programmes (Horizon 2020 is the current seven-year programme, worth €80bn), along with associate members such as Norway.

This access is based on freedom of movement. Switzerland is often cited as a model for the UK, but Swiss access to EU science has crashed since it voted in 2015 to restrict mass migration. If it does not ratify a freedom of movement agreement at the end of 2016, it will be kicked out.

Restricting freedom of movement underpins Brexit and after-effects would be catastrophic for the UK's access to EU science. The certainty from politicians on continuing as a full partner in EU programmes is naïve. If the UK chooses to leave, we will engage with the EU as an outsider, regardless of our own scientific strength.

In theory, the UK could replace the money that UK scientists gain from EU programmes (although the money allegedly available post-Brexit appears to have been promised to every sector, so science better not hold its breath). What it can't replace is collaboration, which does not happen for free or by magic. The UK will need to build and fund new, separate collaborations with EU countries and the rest of the world. Countries such as the US and China sign research deals with the EU as a whole – the UK is a smaller player in comparison.

While EU science continues, the UK will have to reinvent long term scientific strategy and that brings a hefty price tag, one that our Government may not be willing or able to pay. There is neither the money nor the global space to build an equivalent for UK science, so we should celebrate what we have achieved with our EU partners instead.

UK science can thrive outside a political union with the EU, as proven by our strong links to countries such as Australia and the US, argues Dr Christopher Leigh

The UK has a long and proud history of world-leading scientific discovery and innovation. Our talented and industrious scientists continue to punch way above their weight in terms of scientific publications and international impact. We generate 6.9% of all global scientific publications and 15.1% of the world's most highly cited scientific papers[1]

Pro-EU commentators claim that our scientific community is reliant on the political structures of the EU, and that a vote for independence would have an unduly adverse impact on UK science. I believe such concerns are misplaced and that UK science will continue to thrive if the British electorate decides that our future lies outside of the EU project.

The reality is that the EU supports just 3% of UK research and development activity[2]. OECD figures for 2014 also show that 97% of European R&D occurs outside of EU-funded networks. Pro-EU commentators must therefore have little faith in our science community if they believe that a 3% drop in R&D funding would constitute a disaster for UK science.

It's also implausible that leaving the EU would lead to scientific isolation, as some doomsayers predict. Surely the fact that the US is our most important scientific partner proves beyond doubt that international collaboration does not require political union.

Our role in high-profile intergovernmental projects such as CERN, EMBL and the European Space Agency is assured, and testament to the reality that our involvement in European science would continue. Of course, if the terms were acceptable, then there is no logical reason why the UK could not participate in the EU's European Research Area (ERA) as an associate member, on the same pay-in basis that 15 non-EU countries already do.

We fully recognise the importance of researchers and academics being able to travel between countries, but refute the suggestion that such movement is contingent on being part of a political union. Research by Franzoni et al[3] revealed that independent countries with strict immigration controls, such as Australia, Canada and the US, recruit a greater percentage of foreign researchers than the UK, France and Germany. It also reveals that the primary destination for UK-trained scientists is not the EU, but the US, Australia and Canada, none of which we have a free movement agreement with.

Ultimately, UK science is a small aspect of a much wider debate surrounding this referendum. The debate is about who we are and who we want to be governed by. It is 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 that has openly declared its federalist intent.

For my own part, and with history as a guide, I firmly believe that UK science will continue to thrive outside the political structures of the EU, and in an era of global collaboration, our industrious scientists can continue to play a major role in both European and global science.

1) Towards 2030, UNESCO Science (2015).
2) The role of the EU in funding UK research, Royal Society
(December 2015).
3) Franzoni, C. et al. Foreign born scientists:mobility patterns for sixteen countries. NBER Working Papers, National Bureau of Economic Research (2012).

Claire Skentelbery runs European scientific networks and is writing on behalf of Scientists for EU.
Dr Christopher Leigh is an astrophysicist writing on behalf of Scientists for Britain.