The facts about funding (Designed by Lizzie Harrett)
Science

What could leaving the EU mean for science?

Gair Rhydd looks at the pros and cons of leaving the EU from the perspective of science research

by Lizzie Harrett

Should we stay or should we go? A referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) awaits us, perhaps as early as June. Indeed, as Gair Rhydd goes to press this week David Cameron will be locking horns with Brussels big-wigs, in an attempt to negotiate new terms and conditions for continued EU membership that the public will be more amenable to.

The ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns are already heating up in response to the impending vote. Nigel Farage is smoking fags, necking pints and holding public meetings across the country in a bid to convince us to leave, working alongside groups such as ‘Grassroots Out’. On the other side of the argument the cross-party ‘Stronger In Europe’ campaign group is upping the ante, churning out Pro-EU press releases, leafleting the public and launching their movement across the country.

Numerous pros and cons have been argued with respect to staying put or leaving. From Jess Philips MP stressing that increased queuing times at airports would infuriate holiday makers to the complex financial arguments quoting trading rules and regulations put forward by The City, many are adding their two cents to the debate.

However, for those with a strong interest or investment in scientific research there are another subset of arguments to consider. Whether you are a fanatical physics fan, have a passion for parasitology or just enjoy dipping into Gair Rhydd Science when you have a spare 10 minutes between lectures, the arguments below should be considered when you put pen to ballot paper.

Money talks (and delivers scientific breakthroughs), so an important factor to consider when debating science and EU membership is who pays for this research. We rely on EU grants for around 16 per cent of all science funding. We are also incredibly successful at winning EU grants, being allocated around £5.5 billion worth of grants between 2007 and 2013, coming second to only Germany. What’s also very telling is that the 73 per cent of the £200 million increase in science research grants and contracts income between 2007 and 2013 came from EU sources. This is while George Osborne applies cuts to UK government science research funding when you factor in inflation.

Member of the ‘Leave.eu’ campaign and cancer researcher, Angus Dalgleish, opposes these pure statistics. He argues that we would be able to make up the shortfall lost from EU grants, stating: “We would have a far bigger budget for funding our own science.” He claims that if we left we could redirect annual contributions towards EU membership, which is currently around £13 billion, to science funding instead.

Another argument put forward by Eurosceptics is the example of some non-EU members such as Norway and Israel gaining access to these research and funding schemes by paying for inclusion and ensuring they adopt specific EU rules, such as freedom of movement.

This may be harder for the UK, our past success at winning these grants may come back to haunt us, making it much more expensive to renegotiate entry. The case of Switzerland should also be considered; who left the EU in 1992 but gained access to funding programmes. However, in 2014 the country voted to restrict free movement and was formally booted from these schemes. The Swiss government had to make up the shortfall and their participation in these schemes has since been restricted, paying more for less. Christian Sengstag, head of research at The University of Basel summarised the impact this has had on Swiss science, saying the best candidates for research positions “will think twice before accepting a position in Switzerland.”

Scientific research is largely a collaborative affair. If you consider the recently confirmed gravitational waves, it was a large-scale research project involving scientists from all over the globe with some involved even flying the flag for Cardiff University. Research is becoming more and more international. In 1985, 85 per cent of all research papers published in the UK were only authored by British scientists. That figure now stands at just 50 per cent, with all the growth in UK input coming in the form of international collaborations.

How much of this international collaboration can be put down to EU membership? Around 15 per cent of academic staff at UK universities are EU nationals. While these members of staff are unlikely to lose their visas or grants, in the future it could be harder for EU citizen to obtain research jobs here and for EU research groups to collaborate with us. Angus Dalgleish dismisses this, arguing that universities already maintain successful collaborations with non-EU members.

However, collaborative output of research papers last year where the UK is partnered with at least one EU state (13,336) is double that of UK-USA collaborations (6,242). Collaborations with China are even lower, at 1,432. It appears our research infrastructure is built around European collaborations, which you couldn’t alter with a quick fix.

The future that Eurosceptic groups have for science and research funding if we vote to leave the EU appears to currently be simple theory, assuming that we will easily be able to divert equal funds to research. It is very telling that UKIP’s 2015 election manifesto contains just one sentence about the state of science in the UK, claiming they would “increase funding” for STEM subjects. Perhaps something to ask Nigel about if you see him downing a pint outside a pub somewhere.

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