Why the EU matters for British Science.

With the referendum on Britain’s EU membership getting ever closer, there have been many arguments both for and against, but there seems to be one issue that is woefully underreported; the effect that it could have on British scientific research. So far, the science community has strongly aligned itself with the “in” camp, arguing that British research would suffer if the country were outside the EU, and the presidents of the Royal Society, both past and present, have all spoken up about the benefits of membership. But beneath all of this is once central concern; if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated.

Britain is currently a scientific powerhouse, producing 16% of the world’s highest quality research despite hosting just 1% of its population. But the reason for this excellence is that British scientists are able to collaborate with some of the best in the world, many of whom are working in other EU countries. Couple that with the fact that much of our research funding comes from the EU science budget, and you can see that leaving would massively damage this enterprise.

Those campaigning for a British exit of the EU have countered this argument by saying that leaving would mean some of the UK’s contribution to the EU budget could then be invested in research within the country. True, but the problem is that much of our research now involves collaboration with other EU scientists, which would be harmed. The UK’s increasingly networked nature has allowed it to truly excel in collaborative science, with more than 50% of UK research papers being international, compared to just 33% in the US. Papers with international teams of authors also have a much greater impact, with one-third of the best journal papers resulting from international collaborations.

The fact that we collaborate so much is extremely beneficial, as it is exactly what the EU science budget supports. The European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from at least three different EU member (or associate) states, and some of the most prestigious and valuable research grants in Europe are awarded by this organisation. This funding not only helps launch the best British scientists on to the world stage, but such scientists have consistently earned more back in grants than the UK has contributed in every year this scheme has existed, receiving around £1.40 for every £1 that we contributed.

But this is not the only scheme we benefit from, as the EU Marie Slodowska-Curie mobility fellowships support and fund EU scientists to come to Britain as postdoctoral fellows, who are the main drivers of bench science in many disciplines. Through these fellowships, British labs were awarded €1 billion between 2007 and 2014. Again, we gained more money than we contributed, receiving nearly double the amount of Germany, the next best funded country.

All of this means that the EU directly pays for a huge amount of British scientific research and innovation, and because British science is of a very high quality, there is both net financial and scientific gain. We absolutely cannot afford to lose out on such successful source of EU funding, especially since research is usually a fairly low priority in the political arena.

Withdrawing from the EU would also affect how freely scientists can both enter and leave Britain, and success in science is heavily dependant on the movement of people, more so than most other disciplines. Results are not only exchanged formally by publication, but also discussed more directly by individuals in international networks, and scientists will frequently move countries to work in new labs and with new research teams. Strict visa regimes already limit many non-EU scientists from contributing to British science, and the idea that this could potentially extend to an even larger number of EU researchers is a frightening prospect.

The evidence should now be clear; if Britain leaves the EU, we would massively damage an enterprise we are becoming so well-known for.

But why should the voters care? How does investing in scientific research affect those who are not directly involved? Well it has been shown that such investment, through national and EU funding streams, yields historically proven economic returns. All while tackling important social challenges in areas such as healthcare, sustainability, and the environment.

By showing commitment to science funding, the UK can bring in excellent, internationally mobile scientists, engineers, and the industries that seek to employ them, which will give immediate gains through tax revenues and employment. This would also help attract more overseas students, who collectively contributed £5 billion in 2008/09. Couple this with the fact that nearly 30% of the UK’s GDP is produced by sectors involved in science and technology, and it becomes undeniable that this is good for the economy.

So, if Britain cares about science, and cares about maintaining its excellent reputation for research, then it needs the EU. But if Britain leaves, then our scientists will be left stranded on this island, without influence or funding, and begin fading into obscurity.

Sources:

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