What would a Brexit mean for UK science?

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2016

The UK has voted to leave the European Union. In the lead-up to the referendum, Khai Trung Le spoke to David Banks, Scientists for Britain, and Professor Richard Jones, University of Sheffield. Here's what they thought about the potential impact of Brexit on academic science.

You hold in your hands what may be the last issue of Materials World published while the UK is a full Member State of the European Union. With a referendum scheduled for 23 June, the EU exit debate has raged for months, encapsulating far-reaching and disparate factors including the worthiness of the European Economic Community and relevance of the European Court of Human Rights to the recruitment of non-UK nurses in the NHS.

Within this discussion, UK science and research has taken a quieter but no less passionate role. A recently published House of Lords Select Committee review, EU Membership and UK science, sought to categorise the advantages of EU membership, including freedom of movement for researchers and the ability to collaborate on significant projects, and drawbacks, such as regulations that could prohibit innovative research.

While the paper ultimately concludes that the UK could lose strategic influence on EU science policy in the event of a vote to leave, both Remain and Leave camps found cause for support within. David Banks, Communications Consultant and co-founder of Scientists for Britain, and Professor Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, UK, speak to Materials World about their views of the debate.

Focus on finance

Figures from the December 2015 Royal Society report, UK research and the European Union: the role of the EU in funding UK research, reveal that the UK received €8.8 billion from the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) and structural funds during 2007-13, making it the fourth largest benefactor in the EU. When considering the difference between percentage proportions of FP7 funding and GDP, the UK was second only to the Netherlands.

However, Banks challenged the significance of EU funds for UK science and research, making reference to a chart in the same Royal Society report noting that FP7 research funding represented just 3% of UK expenditure on R&D. ‘It’s a small amount, and people don’t realise that. But the way the argument is being framed, you would think UK science would collapse without EU funding.

‘Nor are we proposing EU funding would stop. Horizon 2020 doesn’t give us money because they want to be nice. UK science receives these grants because the UK wins those funds through scientific excellence. But what would UK science look like outside the EU? Norway, Switzerland and Israel are the three biggest beneficiaries per capita, and are non-EU.’

Writing on his personal blog, Professor Peter Coles, Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, UK, has accused Scientists for Britain of massaging the statistics with ‘a tried-and-tested technique of finding the smallest possible numerator and dividing it by the lowest possible denominator […] Most of the pie chart is simply not relevant. The main sources of funding that we can attempt to tap are the UK Research Councils and EU programmes.’

The Royal Society report also explicitly mentions that ‘research and innovation funding through structural funds is not captured in this as only some of these activities fall under the Office of National Statistics’ definition of research and development. The real figure is therefore likely to be higher.’

A separate chart reveals that universities were the highest beneficiaries of FP7 funding, receiving 71% of the UK-allocated pool. Coles and Jones stated that the EU contributes a significant proportion of funding to their respective universities – 21% of the Sussex School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences’ income, and around 30% of research funding at Sheffield.

Pro-leave campaigners have argued that the science budget would be protected in the event of an exit, bolstered in part by the UK no longer having to contribute 0.5% of GDP on EU membership. However, Jones was sceptical that it would make much impact. ‘The UK gets more out of the EU in terms of science funding than it puts in. You would have to assume that if the UK contribution to the EU wasn’t made, the Government would decide to redirect a larger share of returned money to the science budget. I’d love to believe that, but I don’t.’

He added, ‘It’s worth mentioning that we’ve benefitted not just from funding but also from European structural funds in Sheffield. I think that’s something that applies to the less well-off parts of the UK.’

Right to roam

Freedom of movement enables the UK to recruit talented researchers and scientists with ease. Banks claims that the number of EU scientists entering the UK has only recently surpassed the number of scientists and researchers from the rest of the world and, in the event of an exit, the UK would not struggle to recruit international scientists beyond the EU. He continued, ‘Scientists are favoured in visa applications and recruitment anyway. Having so many from the rest of the world demonstrates that there is actually no impediment for well-qualified scientists who are sponsored by a university or company within the UK
to get a job here. The UK will remain open to scientists, as it always has been.’

Banks’ argument appears to run contrary to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who remarked that current UK immigration policy is already detrimental to recruiting scientists from outside the EU (Materials World, Mar 2016, page 8). But Banks believes Ramakrishnan’s argument is indirectly supportive of an EU exit. ‘Home Secretary Theresa May has changed immigration rules and, in order to make some token reduction in immigration, has made it far more difficult to recruit people from outside of the EU. This is an inadvertent effect of EU freedom of movement. Ramakrishnan should be on the side of the leavers. This is an unnecessary dynamic where we’re clamping down on the rest of the world, a punitive effect from knee-jerk politicians who want to hit their goal.’

Jones was unconvinced by this argument, stating, ‘The difficulties in recruiting non-EU scientists are those erected by our own Government, rather than the EU. Again, you have to ask yourself, do I really believe that our Government, outside of the EU, would make those difficulties go away? I don’t think so.’

Keen to highlight another benefit to freedom of movement – the opportunities for collaboration – Jones said, ‘The most important thing is the larger community that science is exposed to within the EU. The UK is a small country, and good science depends on a remarkable balance between competition and collaboration that only scientists can do, and to do that effectively, you need a bigger community than you can sustain in the UK.

‘My own field is polymers and surface interfaces. There are not a lot of groups within the UK working on that. It’s measuring ourselves and competing with our colleagues in France, Germany and smaller science powers like the Netherlands, and being part of this broader community, that helps UK science move forward.’

Despite this, the UK’s participation with European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) projects are unlikely to be jeopardised by an EU exit, with neither being an EU organisation. The paper Brexit: Direction for Britain Outside the EU, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, notes, ‘While the UK would not automatically be a member, it should seek to secure its participation as part of the exit agreement or by applying separately, ideally between the date of the referendum result and exit from the EU.’

Heightened hyperbole

The pro-EU camp has garnered significant support within the scientific community. A March poll conducted by scientific journal Nature revealed that 83% of almost 1,000 active UK researchers supported remaining in the EU, while a slightly smaller 77% of 1,000 active researchers in other EU member states also endorsed the Remain camp. More than 150 University of Cambridge researchers, including Stephen Hawking, signed a letter published by The Times extolling the virtues of EU membership.

However, Banks disputed the claims of overwhelming support, noting that the signatories, all of whom are also Royal Society members, make up a very small percentage of members and are not representative of its views. ‘There is an unacademic, unscientific “groupthink” that inhibits debate. A Scientists for Britain co-founder doesn’t want to be public about supporting us. He knows it would jeopardise his relationships with two universities if he contradicts their political line.’

He added, ‘We would love to speak to Stephen Hawking or Lord Rees of Ludlow, because I’m sure after five minutes of speaking to them, we would be able to offer a new line of enquiry they haven’t thought of. It’s completely illogical that really clever people have reached this erroneous conclusion that UK-EU science is dependent on political amalgamation.’

Jones was not persuaded by Banks’ claim of ‘groupthink’, noting, ‘I’ve got colleagues who have uncomfortable opinions about all sorts of things, and they’re pretty undeterred about stating them. As a university, Sheffield has bent over backwards to state that our part in the debate is solely in hosting it, rather than invoke a sinister management line that people have to follow. And, frankly, nobody would take any notice if we did.’

Journey to June

In the run-up to 23 June, Scientists for Britain has promised to ramp up its rhetoric with bolstered numbers, with Banks extolling the quality of its members. ‘So far, there’s Professor Angus Dalgleish, University of London St George’s, and Professor Mike Loretto, University of Manchester,’ and hinted that the organisation was in talks with several other members of the community. ‘We’re getting enough big names that we’re going to send a letter to The Times.’

Remain supporters continue to be prolific in mainstream debate, and Jones, while an ardent supporter, wants a level-headed discussion. ‘One has to be careful not to overstate things. If the UK were to leave the EU, I don’t think the world would end, and I don’t think scientific enterprise would either. But it would make life more difficult. That seems worth avoiding.’

What are your thoughts on the EU referendum and UK science? Email your comments to materials.world@iom3.org