Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

The EU Referendum: a “disaster” for British science?

There has been considerable debate surrounding the upcoming EU referendum, and around which choice would be the most successful politically, socially, and economically. However a newer argument has emerged: concern about the impact of Brexit on British science. Alongside 150 fellows of the Royal Society, Stephen Hawking has signed an open letter declaring that leaving the EU would spell “disaster for UK science”. Between 2007-2013 the UK received €8.8 billion for research from EU funding, the fourth largest share out of all the EU nations despite a contribution of only €5.4 billion. In contrast, those in the ‘leave’ camp say that money saved from leaving the EU (over the same period as above, the UK gave €72bn but received back only €42bn: a net loss of €30bn) could be spent on British science and research.

The Royal Society has come down firmly on the side of remaining in the EU. “There is no question that science in the UK will be stronger in Europe than out of Europe and what is good for science in the UK is good for everyone in the UK”, said Sir Paul Nurse, the head of the Francis Crick Institute in London, who is also a former president of the Royal Society. They argue that the money ‘saved’ through leaving the EU would not necessarily be spent on science.

Perhaps most importantly of all, some scientists worry that joint projects with other nations would be made very difficult if Britain were to leave. “The EU has been a catalyst for collaboration”, said Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences. An example is the European weather centre predictions about the path of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which demonstrated a far superior performance than their US based counterparts.

Furthermore, Sir Paul has stated that Brexit would send an unfavourable message to young, intelligent European scientists: “It will be a very negative statement if we leave”, he said. “Of course we can continue to collaborate with others around the world but it will be more bureaucratic and more difficult when barriers are put up… It will make it more complicated and it wouldn’t work so well”.

In contrast, Scientists for Britain, an organisation concerned “that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, have suggested a very different fate for research funding should the UK choose to end its EU membership on 23 June. In an open response to Hawking and colleagues, they state that EU funding is responsible for only three per cent of expenditure on research in Britain. They imply that predictions of ‘disaster’ have been greatly hyperbolised, and that the loss of financial backing from the EU would have little impact in the long term.

They argue that, in terms of research, Britain is in a strong position to survive alone, citing the fact that five of the world’s top 20 universities are in the UK whereas the rest of Europe have none. Citing collaborative projects such as the European Space Agency and CERN, which are not affiliated with the EU, they also make the point that plenty of European science takes place outside of the European Union.

In a final statement, they suggest that stricter immigration laws for non-EU citizens (that have arisen because the government is unable “to control migration from EU nations”), will prove detrimental to British science. “Such measures unfairly discriminate against the brightest minds from the rest of the world” says their website.

Opinions on this subject are, clearly, quite polarised. Looking forward, it is not possible to predict exactly the impact Brexit would have on science in the UK. Both parties seem able to agree on one point: that Britain excels in the field of research. Whatever the outcome in June, that will hopefully stay the same.

Image: Lwp Kommunikáció

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