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.Follow @telescoper