If it ain’t broken, don’t BrExit: what leaving the EU would mean for science in the UK.

Before the end of 2017, the people of United Kingdom will vote on whether to leave

the European Union (EU). Britain leaving could result in restricted access to

important funding for UK higher education institutions, and introduce a barrier to

international collaboration. These prospects have caught the attention of UK

scientists, with some voicing their support for EU membership on social media under

the Scientists for EU[1] campaign. All is not well, however, with current EU science

funding mechanisms. Familiar refrains of ‘extensive bureaucracy’ and ‘endless red-

tape’ surrounding EU procedures are common. While UK scientists out-perform

nearly every other nation in applying for EU funding, the UK remains a net

contributor to the EU at-large, strengthening the case for re-direction of this

‘membership fee’ into funding UK research directly.

The role of the EU in Funding UK Science

The UK Government budget for science has been ring-fenced at £4.6bn since 2010 -

a 10% reduction in real-terms today. This money, distributed via 7 research councils,

is the main funding source for UK scientific research. Researchers may also receive

funding from charities, business, and crucially, the European Union. The latest

European Research and Innovation “framework programme” - Horizon 2020[2] - is

the biggest ever, and will see an enormous €80 billion invested over 7 years

between 2014-2020. Under Horizon 2020, the European Research Council (ERC) -

the main public body for funding of scientific and technological research within the

EU - has seen its budget increase by 60% to €13bn. Additionally, €6.2bn will be

made available in the form of Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions - the EU’s main form

of doctoral training. Grants from the ERC are notoriously generous, but sometimes

criticised for their low success rate, of around 10%[3]. Applications are accepted

from non-EU member states, with the sole criterion for success being “peer-reviewed


Researchers in UK institutions have fared well, historically, being awarded one fifth

of ERC grants. This is testament to the UK’s scientific prowess and impressive

productivity, despite ‘home’ funding being the lowest of any G8 country[4] (just 0.5%

of GDP in 2012). Should this continue, the UK is forecast to receive £2bn in the first

two years of Horizon 2020 - topping-up the UK Government contribution by 20%

annually. Clearly, Britain wins under the current system, with European enthusiasm

for research and innovation more than compensating for the stagnant funding

situation at home.

However, it’s precisely because of the tendency for money to flow into countries with

well-developed science infrastructure that some have criticised the ERC model. In

2013, ⅘ grants were awarded to researchers at institutions in the UK, Germany,

Israel, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Eastern European countries win a

measly fraction of grants, but as Mike Galsworthy of Scientists for EU points out[5],

the UK takes more than its ‘fair share’ of research grants, but remains a net

contributor to the EU. The manageability of ERC grants has also been called into

question. A researcher 2-years out of a PhD can be awarded up to €2m - requiring

significant administration. The extra money available to UK scientists in the EU,

therefore, does not come in a form that pleases everyone.

It’s tempting to look towards Switzerland and Norway, whose scientists can apply for

EU funding, and ask; “Why don’t we just leave the EU and continue to apply for its

money?”. This is well within the rules:

"Association to Horizon 2020 is governed by Article 7 of the Horizon 2020 Regulation. Legal

entities from Associated Countries can participate under the same conditions as legal

entities from the Member States. Association to Horizon 2020 takes place through the

conclusion of an International Agreement."

The story of Switzerland pleads caution. In January 2014, the Swiss were poised to

sign an agreement making them an “Associated Country”. However, a referendum in

the country narrowly[6] resulted in restricted movement of people - making the Swiss

Government legally unable to sign. Considering the UK Conservative Government’s

tough stance on immigration, and their reluctance to exclude students[7] from

immigration statistics, a UK outside the EU could find itself in a similar situation. The

Swiss have re-negotiated partial access until 2016, but it’s clear that an anti-

immigration stance is somewhat incompatible with participation in the EU science


Mobile researchers - do we really need them?

Movement of people is widely regarded as essential to science. Young researchers

are frequently told by superiors that mobility will enhance their career prospects, and

the EU encourages this through Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and the Erasmus

student exchange programme. The number of UK students enrolling on the latter

doubled from 2005/06 to 2012/13. However, a 2013 survey[8] of EU researchers

found that 30% perceived their mobility to have damaged their career opportunities.

It is inescapable, however, that modern science is shifting towards big multi-national

experiments, such as the large hadron collider at CERN. This globalisation of

science is reflected in UK scientific publications, of which over 50% include overseas

authors, most frequently EU members. Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society,

has cited the availability of people through the EU as the main reason why it

outperforms the USA in scientific productivity. Moreover, the value of soft skills

gained by researchers participating in the EU research network is unquantifiable, as

they undoubtedly increase employability with global business.

Overall, considering the UK Government’s record on funding research and

innovation, and the UK’s disproportionate success in EU grant applications, it seems

UK science would be better off financially with continued EU membership. Yet this

comes at an estimated net cost of £8.6bn per year to the UK [9], and it is impossible

to predict how this would be re-distributed in an independent UK budget. It is also

impossible to put a value on having a voice when it comes to EU science policy. The

success of UK researchers applying to the ERC, for example, would by no means be

guaranteed to continue outside the EU.

While the future of our relationship with the EU is as uncertain as ever, one thing’s

for certain, UK-based scientists are determined to make their voices heard before

the referendum.















#EU #General #Politics #ChristopherRosslowe

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