Can UK Science Survive Outside the EU?

Please watch the following video made by the organization Scientists for EU. You could also read the document referred to in the video (“International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013”) which can be found here.

19 Responses to “Can UK Science Survive Outside the EU?”

  1. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    Leaving the EU would be a disaster for UK science

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Countries like Norway, Switzerland, and, until 20 years ago, Sweden, Finland, and Austria didn’t seem to suffer from not being in the EU. Of course, this is a difficult quantity to measure, but I suspect that being in the EU or not is one factor of many and the difference is probably smaller than differences between various countries in the EU. Whether or not it is better for UK science to stay in the EU, or if it is not whether one should accept a disadvantage if there are other reasons for leaving are, of course, separate questions. Certainly it could survive and I think “disaster” should be reserved for real disasters.

  3. John Peacock Says:

    In principle UK science could thrive outside the EU – if our government was willing to invest at the appropriate level. But the omens aren’t good. As we know, domestic spend on astronomy research has roughly halved over the last decade. Other subjects haven’t perhaps done this badly, but pretty well all areas seem to have experience substantial real-terms cuts.

    What’s plugging the factor-2 gap is very simple: the ERC. In Edinburgh astronomy, we have more research money coming in from ERC grants than from UK-based grants; I know of quite a few other groups in the same situation. If we were to leave the EU, then our numbers of postdocs could halve. We don’t need to argue over whether the term “disaster” is appropriate to see such a change would be very bad for the UK as a force in world research.

    You can argue that the ERC just redistributes money given by national governments, and that a non-EU UK would no longer pay to the ERC. There are two answers to this. One is that the UK regularly does much better than pro rata in terms of successfully bidding for ERC funding. The other is to question whether the UK would even be guaranteed to redirect all its current ERC contribution to domestic research. We’re already notorious for having one of the lowest shares of GDP going into research:

    So would you trust the government not to continue shrinking this figure?

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Just to be clear: Of course any non-EU country, including the UK (or Scotland 🙂 ) in the future, could thrive scientifically. Whether it is better for the UK to stay in the UK because of science funding (or for other reasons) is a separate question.

    • We’re in a similar situation here, with good ERC income compensating falling support from STFC in Astronomy and Particle Physics.

      Of course, if the UK does vote to withdraw from the EU that will probably trigger another referendum on Scottish independence, which would be very likely to succeed this time…

  4. The UK needs to be in the EU to be part of multi-national collaborations? Is this an example of what may delicately be called extracting the Michael?

    CERN, the single most successful example of European scientific co-operation, is not in any way an EU body. It is based on treaties to which individual countries sign up; some EU members (Ireland) are not CERN member states, and some CERN member states (Israel, Switzerland – the host country!) are not EU members.

    The same is true of ESA – another highly successful example of European scientific co-operation.

    Certainly the ERC is a highly successful and well-run research council (and if UK withdraws from EU it should seek to remain with the ERC, as eg Norway and Israel do).

    However some of the other EU funding schemes are notoriously bureaucratic and with stupid salaries, for example paying students as senior postdocs and postdocs (`Experienced Researchers’) as full professors.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      “stupid salaries, for example paying students as senior postdocs and postdocs (`Experienced Researchers’) as full professors”

      I think that was true in some cases in the past, but is it still true today?

      • I remember when I was involved in an EU grant in the old days, the salaries for PDRAs were indeed set at ridiculously high levels. I asked the EU bureaucrat why they had set them so high, and he replied that they had picked a salary at the same level as the lowest grade clerical assistant in their organization….

        EU programmes have since reduced the PDRA salaries to something more realistic, but whether they ahve reduced the bureacrats’ salaries is more doubtful.

      • I’m not sure of current current figures (although they’re probably not hard to find) but as this 2012 page helpfully explains, Marie Curie salaries “range from £35,000 per annum for PhD students to over £90,000 per annum for experienced researchers.”

        (link is )

        In contrast ERC salaries are on the ordinary institutional postdoctoral salary scale.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Yes, they were higher in the past. However, at least in some cases, this was the gross compensation, intended to cover everything, including benefits usually part of a salary package such as health, unemployment, and pension insurance. This was definitely the case for “fellowship”-type positions, which otherwise include just a salary with the fellow expected to cover the other costs himself. I’ve even seen some fellowship-type positions (not EU-funded) where the official line is that the stipend is not expected to cover all costs! I’m not talking about native assistants and jeeps for field work in Africa, but rather basic things like health insurance.

      • With any normal UK job though, you are expected to cover health, unemployment and pension contributions from your salary (in practice via income tax/national insurance deductions which the government then reallocates to the NHS etc).

      • There are also employers’ national insurance contributions and a (large) employer contribution to the pension scheme, which means that the “on-cost” for a PDRA is substantially higher than the salary.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        What does a UK doctoral student earn today? A professor? An experienced researcher?

        Of course, one has to be careful not to compare apples and oranges. In other words, the total compensation needs to be compared, not just the salary, and any overhead needs to be deducted.

      • How much do they earn, or how much do they get paid? 😉

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        the “on-cost” for a PDRA is substantially higher than the salary

        Indeed. So, there are apples, oranges, pears, bananas,,,,

        Different countries handle this in different ways. In some, all is deducted from the gross salary, in the form of income tax, or some contribution, or whatever. In others, these things are paid by the employer and are not considered part of even the gross salary. In others, it is half and half, or some other scheme. Of course, to the employer, the interesting thing is the total compensation, but this makes it difficult to truly compare gross salaries, much less net salaries (which, of course, also depend on things like other income and so on).

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “How much do they earn, or how much do they get paid?”

        How much are they worth? 🙂

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        At one time I was paid out of an EU Marie Curie scheme, but a “research assistant” position, not a fellowship. The payscale was the same as those doing comparable jobs with other sources of funding, i.e. the normal university pay scale. I was a bit surprised to learn that some people employed via the same EU “framework” did not have to pay taxes in the UK, whereas I did, so for the same gross pay and otherwise comparable employers my net pay was lower. 😦

  5. Phil Uttley Says:

    When I worked in the UK I had a couple of Marie Curie PhD students from 2009-2012 and they earned the same as a postdoc (with a few years experience). Our Marie Curie postdoc fellows at the same time earned the same as a Reader, but not quite as much as a Prof. The problem is that the European Commission mandates payment of a fixed amount plus a country-specific cost-of-living correction (which adds nearly 10% for the UK) which is used to pay all costs associated with the position (employers costs as well as salary), but this doesn’t account for the fact that different countries have more or less tax burden on employers. In the Netherlands the result is that Marie Curie postdocs don’t get that much more than a regular postdoc, while their counterparts in the UK (with low employers tax contribution – just employers National Insurance) earn a princely sum… The simple solution would be to ensure that MC fellows earn the standard local postdoc rate, plus the extra mobility allowance or some top-up to make it attractive.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      I definitely didn’t earn a princely sum when working in the UK. Probably, each university handles these things differently, e.g. how big a cut they take.

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