More than 150 academics, led by Professor Stephen Hawking, have signed an open letter to The Times declaring that leaving the European Union would be a ‘disaster’ for UK science.
British academic scientific research projects and facilities receive a great deal of funding grants from the European Union. They claim that this funding would be put at serious risk if the UK voted to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum. Although the Leave campaign claim that we can make up the lost investment in scientific research with the money saved from the membership fee the UK pays, the scientific academics claim this is a false premise. The EU specifically allocates 8% of its budget, 80 billion euros from 2014-2020, into scientific research and development, as well as a further 5% of indirect investment. The academics point out that the UK government does not match this level of investment.
The UK is the leading light of European science. This could be an argument for the Leave campaign to say that our science research sector would not suffer from Brexit. However, the scientists backing Remain are keen to point out that the funds which we receive in science research grants, as a proportion of the total amount of direct monetary investment the UK receives from the EU, are far greater than our contribution to the EU science investment fund as a proportion of our membership fee. Since the EU strategically directs the money it receives from the twenty-eight member states to where it will be the most effective, and because the last Labour government put a great deal of effort into cultivating the UK science and research sector, British scientists disproportionately benefit from our membership of the EU. This, they say, is why they are so passionate about convincing the British people that we are better off in the EU. Dr Mike Galsworthy has also pointed out that the UK government would be incapable of providing higher levels of funding for scientific research if, as expected, the UK economy suffered a severe downturn as a result of Brexit. The influx of European money into British research institutions is mirrored by the fact that so many French, German and other European science experts choose to come to Britain to do their research. The EU freedom of movement facilitates this.
“Our own vice chancellor, Chris Brink, was one of the signatories of an open letter to The Sunday Times on 21 February, advocating the benefits of EU membership to British universities”
In addition to this, the House of Lords science and technology committee has released its report on its appraisal of Britain’s membership of the EU, as reported in The Daily Telegraph on 27 April. It came as no surprise that the committee strongly supported the case to Remain in the European Union for the benefit to our science and technology research. Every single government minister for the last twenty-five years who has ever been responsible for science or universities is backing the case to Remain, along with over a hundred university vice chancellors, with not a single one declared for Leave. Our own vice chancellor, Chris Brink, was one of the signatories of an open letter to The Sunday Times on 21 February, advocating the benefits of EU membership to British universities.
Both sides of the argument have been debated by the scientific community. Matt Ridley, a member of the House of Lords science and technology committee, wrote a piece for The Times on 21 April claiming that pan-European scientific collaboration is not dependent on membership of the EU, and that the British science sector could actually be even more successful outside of the EU. His colleagues, however, seem to disagree. The Science Council debate resulted in an 84% vote to Remain. A key reason given was the fact that outside of the EU, Britain would lose its leading role in formulating EU science policy. Indeed, a 2013 government report stated that it was the specifically international aspect of British science that has put us ahead of the USA for scientific productivity. The Independent reported on 27 April that Brexit could put cancer research at risk, whilst the University of Oxford, on 22 April joined the growing group of ‘Universities for Europe’, making the case to Remain. For Oxford alone, the funding they receive from the EU came to £66 million in the 2014-15 academic year.
Amongst scientists and university academics, the message is clear – science is stronger in the EU – but needs to be louder if they are to ensure victory for the Remain camp.