Why the EU is Vital to UK Science

The EU referendum campaign may only just have started but already there have been deliberate attempts to mislead the electorate about the realitites of  EU membership. I know that people will consider a wide range of issues before casting their vote in the forthcoming referendum. I am glad there is to be a referendum because there is at least a chance that some truth will emerge as these topics are discussed publicly over the next four months.

My views on the wider questions raised by the referendum are of no greater value than anyone else’s so I am going to restrict myself here to one issue that I do know something about: the importance of continued EU membership to UK Science. Before going on I will state, for the record, that I am not in receipt of any grants or other income from the EU. Not that this should matter. I deeply resent the snide implications of the “out” campaign that  ERC or other EU grants represent some form of gravy train. They don’t. Such awards are highly competitive and subject to strict accounting rules. They are used to fund research not to generate personal wealth. Scientists are not bankers.

Anyway, I believe that it would be a disaster for science if the UK were to quit the EU. In the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex around one-quarter of our research income comes via the EU. Without that cash we would have to make drastic cuts which would certainly lead to redundancies. And I don’t for one minute believe that such funding would be replaced by increases from the UK government. It has been a hard slog just to get level cash settlements for science over the last two Parliaments, and that has led to steady real-terms attrition of support for scientific research. Meanwhile, the EU has, wisely for the future of the European economy, been increasing its science budget in real terms. Many research groups are only viable because of the EU’s strategic vision. We have in front of us the very real prospect of the devastation of our science base if Brexit becomes a reality.

But it’s not just about loss of funding. It’s also about the loss of influence. The UK benefits from EU membership because it has representatives around the table when funding priorities are decided. We provide scientific leadership to many projects, which reflects well on our reputation in the world and attracts significant inward investment. This loss of influence is, of course, not only the case for science but also for other areas of policy. The “out” campaign’s desire for isolationism would leave Britain with even less influence on its own destiny than it has now.

Of course these are personal views and you are free to disregard them. On the other hand, they are also the views of most UK scientists. Here are the key conclusions of  a recent survey and report:

  • 93% of researchers asked in the CaSE and EPC survey agreed that EU membership is a major benefit to UK.
  • Some regions of the UK are more dependent than others on EU funding in maintaining research capacity and infrastructure, and as a result could suffer disproportionate adverse impacts if this source was withdrawn.
  • The ability to attract academic staff to the UK through free movement of labour is important, particularly in science and engineering.
  • The role and benefits of EU membership to UK research is considered by researchers to be broader than just the funding for research that EU projects bring to the UK. The improvement in quality, reach and impact, facilitated by EU collaboration and coordination, helps to solve “Grand Challenge” problems in a way that would be much harder for any one country to achieve alone.

My only surprise with these survey results is that the fraction quoted in the first bullet point is as low as 93%. In my experience strong support for the EU is practically universal amongst scientific researchers across the entire spectrum of disciplines.

I realise science funding is unlikely to be the decisive issue for many people when it comes to casting their vote, but it is a topic I feel strongly about and it angers me greatly when campaigners deliberately misrepresent the view of real scientists. That is one of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of Scientists for the EU and I shall be campaigning strongly for Britain to remain at the heart of a Europe committed to science for the benefit of all its citizens.



18 Responses to “Why the EU is Vital to UK Science”

  1. An interesting point of view which I wholly disagree with. I have been a Reviewer on ESPRIT projects and a recipient of EU funds on technology projects. I was also a recipient of a UK Science Research Council grant some 40 years ago when I was just starting out so that I can compare the two regimes. And finally, I am familiar with the CATAPULT initiatives.
    The best feature of EU projects is the opportunity of meeting with fellow scientists and researchers across continental Europe. But today science is far bigger than the EU and I like working with people from Australia and New Zealand and India and Singapore too. I find EU projects far too political and protectionist – and often bad science.

    The UK pays about £6 Billion into the EU and gets back £3 Billion some of which is used in supporting EU projects in the UK. It is paid to the UK in Euros which lead to currency conversion costs. The accounting procedures are dire and bureaucratic in the extreme – the EC has had its accounts qualified for every year that I can recall. No company or UK academic institution could survive having its accounts qualified year upon year.
    If the UK left the EU then British universities are research establishments would have the whole world of science with which to associate. Thanks to the internet we are as close to people in the Far East as we are to Europe. We can work co-operatively with anyone using SKYPE. We can share R&D in the cloud. The UK Science and Research and Engineering Councils, can be decently funded by Government free of political correctness from Brussles

    This morning Matt Ridley, the science journalist, made a good case for leaving the EU, Amongst other things he said ” … The most powerful section of Mr Gove’s explosive manifesto, published on Saturday after he left the cabinet meeting, was this:
    “The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date. The EU tries to standardise and regulate rather than encourage diversity and innovation. It is an analogue union in a digital age.”
    This is a serious charge, but fair. Europe is the only continent without significant economic growth since 2008. Italy’s GDP is lower than it was then; while India’s, China’s and even Ethiopia’s have roughly doubled. Then think about where the innovations that transform our lives are coming from: America and Asia, even Africa, more than from Europe.
    There is a reason for this. The way Brussels works is fundamentally antithetical to innovation. It is top down, with regulation promulgated by officials behind closed doors in meetings with lobbyists. There are about 25,000 lobbyists in Brussels, representing the likes of Big Pharma and Big Green, and they are often in the room when rules get written that erect barriers to entry against irritating new competitors.
    The way in which Volkswagen, using carbon-dioxide emissions as a cover, got the rules rewritten to suit diesel engines and discriminate against petrol engines, despite the fact that nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from diesel were far higher and more dangerous, was only the most visible such scandal.
    Sir James Dyson was amazed to find that Brussels set energy ratings for vacuum cleaners without testing them filled with dust, because this suited the German bagged vacuum cleaner manufacturers that he threatened: “Washing machines are tested with washing in them, cars are tested with people in them, and fridges are tested with food in them. But when it came to our request to test vacuum cleaners with dust in them, the big German block of manufacturers complained.”
    Then there’s the need to get agreement among 28 member nations, which leads to agonisingly slow convergence on lowest common denominators. Look at how the use of biotechnology in agriculture, with its proven ability to cut pesticide use, has been stymied by green politicians from certain implacably conservative countries.
    Then there’s the “precautionary principle”, formally written into EU thinking and widely interpreted to mean that only the harms, not the benefits, of new technologies must be considered. This has repeatedly prevented the displacement of bad technologies by better ones.
    In any case, as Mr Gove says, for innovation you need diversity. It is abundantly clear that trial and error is the story of almost all change. Different people come up with different ideas, try them out and many fail. Those that succeed then recombine their ideas with those of others to produce new ideas. The EU’s obsession with harmonisation militates against such experiment.
    In encouraging innovation, there is a role for international standard-setting, for sure. But not at the level of one continent. Standards in finance, the internet, food or cars are increasingly decided at the global level. The EU is little more than a substation of the process and a foot-dragging one at that.
    The EU says it favours innovation, but what it means by this is not encouraging a ferment of new start-ups à la Silicon Valley, but top-down spending of taxpayers’ money on pet projects in science and technology. Yet even here there is no justification for an officious European Commission. The flagship science collaborations of Europe are not confined to the EU at all: they include countries such as Israel, Switzerland and Turkey. CERN’s accelerator crosses an EU border.
    The prime minister wants us to stay in a “reformed Europe”. But the one thing we can all agree on is that — in sharp contrast to what he aimed for in his fine Bloomberg speech three years ago — his renegotiation has not “reformed Europe” at all, just Britain’s relationship with the EU, and that in minor and easily reversible ways.
    In the 1950s, you could just about make the case that Britain’s destiny lay in a regional trading bloc. But now? When container shipping has collapsed the cost of intercontinental trade? When the internet and budget airlines and Skype have made it as easy to do business in Asia and America and Africa as in Europe? …

    • telescoper Says:

      You are entitled to your opinion of course, but your attempt to compare UK funding 40 years ago with EU funding now is laughable.

      UK funding is far more bureaucratic now, largely because of the requirements to prove immediate economic impact (which EU mechanisms do not require).

      I am of course also talking about scientific research, which I do know something about, rather than technology development, which I don’t. I have long held the view that the latter should be funded by venture capital rather than state funding.

      ps. I have to balance my budget every year too. That’s normal in the HE sector.

      • I am not comparing UK funding 40 years ago with EU funding today – I was comparing the UK bureaucratic operation of funding with the EU bureaucratic operation of funding – and you have admitted that UK funding is far more bureaucratic now. You put the blame on the requirement for an economic benefit – but that always was a factor. Funding was easier to get because British civil servants could see that funding would benefit British scientists (and embryonic scientists – as I then was). That link has now been lost.

        We need to take back control of the funding of UK Science and that can only be done by leaving the EU.

      • telescoper Says:

        Sorry but your logic is nonexistent. The worst bureaucracy and micromanagement is in the UK not the EU.

      • >. The worst bureaucracy and micromanagement is in the UK not the EU.<,
        That is because the UK has implemented EU regulations too literally and UK civil servants. Outside the EU we would be able to revert back to a more sensible system

    • Phil Uttley Says:

      “When the internet and budget airlines and Skype have made it as easy to do business in Asia and America and Africa as in Europe?”

      Seriously, how many budget airlines have you flown to the US on? Would those be those same *European* budget airlines that make air travel within Europe so cheap because EU market rules allow carriers to fly between EU states even if they are not based in either state, but protectionist US rules prevent operating between US cities? And perhaps the same airlines that will be able to bring prices down in the US and for transatlantic flights when the EU uses its negotiating power to incorporate these market freedoms into the US via something like TITP? Yes, the EU really is outdated, the US definitely the future….some future.

      • Ah airlines – that is a wholly different can of worms and has very little to do with the EU. Air travel is governed not by EU treaties but by complex bilateral agreements based around support for national airlines and national airports. That is why you have ‘cattle class’ airline travel within the USA, which does not have a effective train travel network any longer. In Europe distances are shorter and we tend to have reasonably good public transport networks (and comprehensive health care for everyone). Look up what the airlines did to Freddie Laker and his airline in the 1970s to see how the system works in the USA in respect of international travel.

      • telescoper Says:

        Sorry but your logic is nonexistent. The worst bureaucracy and micromanagement is in the UK not the EU.

      • telescoper Says:

        There are reasonably good public transport links in mainland Europe but not in the UK.

    • About 14,000 according to a report of the Hansard Society in 2008 – “Friend or Foe – Lobbying in British Democracy”

    • Jesus Torrado Says:

      “About 14,000”: so, if the numbers are right, that’s about 5 times more lobbyists per capita in the UK than in the EU. (Zero would be a better number in both cases, though.)

  2. Peter this was a powerful and clear argument, and as a professional leftie I can state with more than five sigma certainty that your best line was “Scientists are not bankers” – made me laugh and made your point very well.

    In fact I think that should become the strap line of the Scientists for EU campaign as it will remind people of the difference.

  3. […] To read the whole blog post go here: Why the EU is Vital to UK Science […]

  4. Yes, absolutely right: science in the United Kingdom benefits greatly from the European Union.

    The UK receives more than its per capita share of science funding, and so other countries are net contributors to UK science. Scientists are used to multinational collaboration for mutual gain, and the idea of the UK breaking away to become an isolated Little Britain makes no sense to them.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The point here is that there is a direct financial benefit to the United Kingdom in science funding in strict accounting terms. That is an argument for the UK remaining in the European Union (and that is relevant here because the UK is having a referendum about continued membership in four months, and because this discussion is about science).

      The reality, of course, is that there are broader benefits from scientific collaboration within the EU. That works for all countries that participate. The UK does very well in science from its EU membership because it a net beneficiary financially, and because it benefits from the collaboration.

      The strict budgeting arguments work differently in different sectors. Some member states are net beneficiaries in some sectors, and others in other sectors. I would argue that the EU provides political and security stability, easy trading and other benefits for all member states, and they justify its existence. In strict accounting terms the UK is a net contributor overall, but benefits greatly from the stability and security the EU creates over the greater part of this continent. If the UK left, UK money would still have to paid to less economically successful European countries to stabilise near neighbours.

    • Yes, that’s right. The issue is that those of us in the United Kingdom have to face up to these things right now: the referendum is only four months away.

      Overall, the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget: the financial benefits in science do not apply in other areas.

      The EU is about mutual benefits for all. It is not a zero-sum game. We all benefit enormously from the stability the EU provides across the continent. The problem is that some people in Britain are so introverted they do not see this. Others are very badly informed, many because of decades of anti-EU propaganda and falsehoods in some newspapers. The likelihood is that the UK will vote to remain, but it might still vote to leave which could precipitate chaos for the UK and could weaken the continent in dangerous times.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s right. I personally would have preferred fewer privileges for the UK and instead that the EU had adapted its policies for all states to take account of the concerns of the UK government.

  5. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it better myself…

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