Debate: UK Science and the European Union – EUmatters


Published on January 29th, 2016 | by frances


Debate: UK Science and the European Union

Letter 1: Dr Mike Galsworthy,  the Programme Director for Scientists for EU

The referendum debate is a welcome and necessary exercise in democracy. However, it is also an intensely complex question. Our relationship with the EU influences many aspects of our society and the effects of pulling out are hard to clarify in many circumstances.

Rather than live off the scraps of political soundbites handed to us, we should all take up our democratic responsibility to educate ourselves on these matters. The best way to do this is for communities, both professional and regional, to engage in debate within themselves. The main messages “for” and “against” as clarified by those communities are then made available to the wider public.

With that spirit in mind, I gladly welcome the invitation to debate with Dr Chris Leigh. At Scientists for EU, we have been putting our case strongly to the public. However, it is also our collective responsibility within the science community that all voices are heard and all ideas fairly challenged. That’s what science is about.

Our core message from the Scientist for EU campaign concerns the most exciting path for UK science to drive innovation in this country and play our role in meeting global challenges. We believe that the structure of the EU, its rights and protections, collaborative spirit, science program and vision all support the advancement of UK science. That in turn is good for the UK, EU and the world as a whole.

It is critical to highlight what the EU has done for science already, even before examining what impact Brexit would make. The public should understand the EU across all areas and this must go beyond the usual popular sources like red-tops. We would all benefit from looking to the dialogues coming out of the grassroots. In our field of science, the EU’s record is one of resounding success. Dozens of submissions to the ongoing House of Lords inquiry into EU membership and UK science stand as authoritative testimony to the positive impact of the EU on our world-leading science. Witnesses called to the inquiry describe how the EU has overtaken the US as the home of “big science”.

The countries of the EU now produce 34% more scientific output than the US and the gap is growing. But the EU itself is the glue, adding a combination of EU basic rights, legislation and the multinational funding programmes which have networked the region the world’s greatest hub of scientific activity. International collaborations in turn have substantially more impact than domestic-only research. A 2013 UK government report attributed the UK’s new lead over the US for science productivity to our greater degree of internationalisation than the US.

The UK’s driving seat on this fantastically successful engine is relinquished should we choose to pull our government and 73 MEPs from the formation of the EU’s science legislation, agenda, budgeting and design of the programmes. Our participation on the hugely-successful programmes is at risk too. We will have no automatic entitlement to continue on them and our role will be retained or re-shaped according to the interests of the remaining 27 EU countries. Compare these options against staying in, where we could continue to shape EU and global science for the enrichment of everyone.


Response: Dr Christopher Leigh, Scientists for Britain

Can I first thank the Prospect Union for inviting me to engage in this important referendum debate on the relationship between UK Science and the EU, and also thank Dr. Mike Galsworthy for taking up the challenge on behalf of Scientists for EU (SfEU).

I’ll start my response by saying that I feel incredibly privileged to be a scientist in a country that boasts such a strong, rich and dynamic science base. The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of world-leading scientific discovery and innovation, and on the whole, our scientific community receives a good level of support from UK Government, UK Universities, Industry and the British public. In an increasingly competitive and technologically advanced world, our talented and industrious scientists have managed to consistently outperform, with a number of reports suggesting that we punch way above our weight in terms of scientific publications and their international impact – where publications (or scientific papers) are used as a broad measure in determining scientific output. Indeed a recent UNESCO Science report (Towards 2030) reveals that despite having only 0.9% of the world’s population and 3.3% of its scientific researchers, we generate 6.9% of global scientific publications.

Despite our strong global standing, however, the announcement of a referendum on our future relationship with the EU seems to have generated some concern amongst pro-EU commentators that our scientific community is less robust than it appears, and that leaving the political structures of the EU would have an unduly adverse impact on UK science. I would like to take this opportunity to set out a number of reasons why I believe those concerns are misplaced, and hopefully I can reassure Prospect members that the UK science sector should continue to thrive and outperform, should the British Electorate decide that our future lies outside the political EU project.

EU Funding for UK Science:

It’s natural to worry that withdrawal from the EU might have a big impact on our national science budget, but the simple fact is that UK Science receives a contribution from the EU that equates to just 10% (£260 million in 2013/14) of that derived from UK Research Councils (£2.8 billion in 2013/14). Given that the UK is a net contributor to the EU Project, with a NET annual payment of around £11 billion (ONS figures for 2013) and growing, the science funding returned via EU-administered science networks equates to just 2.3% of the UK’s NET annual contribution. There is no doubt in my mind that the UK could easily afford to cover the potential £260 million funding gap following a vote for EU exit, or should we choose, to continue funding our participation in the European Research Area (ERA) – the structure that supports science collaborations funded through the EU.

Our future relationship with EU Science:

On the point of ERA membership, Mike makes the point that there is no automatic entitlement to continue, but I would make two points in response.

  1. The ERA already includes several non-EU countries, such as Switzerland, Iceland, Turkey and even Israel, so the precedent of non-EU participation has already been set. Israel has been the most successful of these, having been involved in 2000+ EU projects worth €875 million. Indeed, Israel has received 1.6 Euros for every Euro that it contributed to the ERA, showing that it benefits even more than the UK.
  2. Ongoing collaboration with a post-Brexit UK would be hugely beneficial to the EU. It’s clear that the UK is a powerhouse of scientific research, and SfEU believes that the UK is currently the main driver of EU science. Yes, the decision to collaborate with us would rest with the remaining 27 EU members, but is it likely that they would not wish to work with a close neighbour that has five of the world’s top 20 Universities (QS Rankings) where none exist in the rest of the EU, or has produced more Nobel Laureates in Science than any other EU member? I would argue that it’s very much in the interests of the EU to continue collaboration with the UK on many areas, and would ask Mike to set out if he thinks the European Research Council (ERC) would actively seek to prevent us participating in the ERA.

Academic Freedom of Movement:

Another concern of pro-EU commentators is the potential impact to UK science from changes to free movement in a post-Brexit environment. Rest assured that no political party has suggested a closing of our borders to scientists, engineers and professionals. Scientists and politicians are united in recognising the importance of researchers being free to travel between countries for the purposes of scientific research and collaboration, and I have no doubt that future UK governments will maintain that warm welcome to scientists and their families from around the world, who we will continue to embrace as valued contributors to the UK science and technology sector. Should a future UK government decide to strengthen our border controls, then the evidence clearly shows that countries with a strict points-based immigration system, such as Australia, can ensure the free flow of skilled personnel to maintain a highly productive scientific output (UNESCO Science Report 2015).

European Science is bigger than the EU:

As an astrophysicist, I fully appreciate the importance of international collaboration to our scientific output and to the future of science as a whole. Where I disagree with Mike is on whether we need the political oversight of the EU project in order to initiate and conduct such collaboration. It’s not hard to find many examples of successful intergovernmental projects that primarily involve European countries, but which are not part of the EU, such as CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO); just to name just a few from my own field of interest. Our involvement in these projects will continue regardless, and their existence is testament to the fact that European Science is bigger than the EU.

And finally …

At the end of the day, the impact on UK science is but a small part of a much wider debate surrounding this referendum. This is a debate that goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we want to be governed by. It’s about whether we wish to remain a democratic, sovereign nation with a global vision, or whether we are happy to continue, at whatever speed, towards the EU’s stated goal of a Federal Europe. For my own part, and with history as a guide, I firmly believe that UK Science would continue to thrive outside the political structures of the EU, and by fully embracing the era of global collaboration, our industrious scientists would continue to play a major role in both European and World Science.

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