EU membership and UK Science

There’s been a lot of passionate debate about the impact leaving the EU will have on UK science and higher education. Almost everywhere you look, universities, learned societies and industry are becoming political campaigners; having opinions which they haven’t otherwise been able to voice. I’ve joined the UCL European Institute for an evening of important debate, hearing from an eclectic panel about what will happen if Britain leave the EU.

Professor Graeme Reid set up the House of Lords inquiry on EU membership & UK science. He’s both incredibly knowledgeable and wonderfully diplomatic. We’re experiencing a Conservative enthusiasm for Europe from a government who provoked the referendum in first place.

Being part of the EU means we’re part of EU regulation, which is super important for high-tech and pharmacology industries: 1 product can be appropriate for the whole EU market, not just our tiny island. In the build up to the enquiry the House of Lords heard a chorus of people who said the UK do extremely well from EU science funding, which supports us to be some of the best scientists in the world. What they realised was it was actually much more complicated than it seems. Of all the money leaving Brussels bound for the UK, 20 % goes to research and development. When it comes to excellence based funding (the result of the REF), we’re super high performers. Against other member states, we come second only to Germany and first when normalised per euro GDP. For structural and innovation funds, we don’t do quite so well- and we’re not doing great for business funding either, which largely goes to SMEs and not global mega stars. Reid points out is that of the 20 % Brussels money going to R&D, the majority of this R&D is done by businesses, the majority of which have HQs outside the UK- and none of whom wanted to give evidence to the select committee. Reid’s got some insight on this too: unlike their academic counterparts, companies don’t want to participate in such a highly charged issue.

Emran Mian of the Social Market Foundation was quick to distinguish between EU and Europe. We’re likely to stay in Europe, and share their human rights and horizon 2020 mission. The OECD, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the treasury- everyone sees the risk in leaving the EU. On Thursday the Bank of England reported leaving the EU would leave us in a technical recession. Our predicted growth in the EU is 2.7 %, whereas if we leave it’s only 1.9%- which sounds tiny, but equates to £24 billion a year. He’s full of great stats. An IPSOS MORI poll of those who were voting ‘Remain’ found that if the net migration to the UK from the EU increased, they’d either change their mind (10 %) or become unsure (44 %). I’m tempted to trust Mian, he’s a bright chap. UK Universities have made Brexit too parochial- they’re more than just money and need to consider the roles they play in society.

David Walker, witness to the House of Lords inquiry and formerly at the Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that the type of people who are vocal about ‘Leave’ aren’t the type of people that academics are likely to get along with. They’re climate change deniers, they’re right wing, they’re Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. He’s totally right: UK Science is excellent, and if it is excellent we should be able to compete on a global stage too. Ultimately, does it matter where the science is done? We’ve become convinced that excellent science can only be done on terra ferma, but we’re just not right. Walker’s convinced that the bilateral collaborations between researchers and academics will remain, irrespective of the way the UK votes- funding streams do matter, but the relationships that foster research seem to be bigger than multi-lateral international debate. We collaborate with Switzerland and Norway. The final speaker, Alexander Halliday from the Royal Society, sings the praises of European Research Council (ERC) funding. When the Research Council UK (RCUK) funding starts to decrease, the ERC more than fills the gaps. It’s much less restrictive than RCUK funding- there aren’t pathways to impact: it’s blue skies, it’s supportive. He explains why we don’t appear to do as well for structural funds, and it’s because we’re actually pretty well-equipped- this funding is reserved for developing countries and those who are rebuilding after wars. It’s really important for mobility- 25 % of the esteemed Marie Curie fellowships bring people in to the UK, and universities like UCL are populated by European students and staff (15 %). He says we’ll rapidly become left behind- Texas pulled out of a super collider project and the US gave up on particle physics. What will happen to CERN if we leave the EU? The disproportionate representation of the UK in EU funding spectrum gives us access to high tables that make us influence scientific progress, and we get listened to.

Professor Halliday has been an academic in Switzerland, where he was at his scientific prime: an amazing lab, a global-leading research group, a brilliant way-of-life. When he crossed the border to Germany and France he felt absolute relief- he was part of something bigger and more collected. Switzerland realised they were missing out and opened their boarders, but he still couldn’t lead on an EU project. When Croatia were brought in to the EU, the Swiss didn’t take too kindly and closed their boarders. The EU responded by shutting down their EU academic funding.

Jackie closes the panel by emphasising how ridiculously highly we think of ourselves: the UK feels big delusions of grandeur.  If you were a “global multinational” pharma company, why would you base your HQ in the tiny population of the UK? During the Q&A after we discuss the importance of learning the language of the place we’re working in. “something is lost by our mono-linguicism”- if you cannot see the world through another prism/ culture, you lose an insight. We’ve had a strange relationship with Europe to date. If you work in a big corporation, it’s much more impressive to say you’re moving to the New York/ Hong Kong office than it is to say you’re moving to Paris. If you’re a politician, you’re much more respected to get into the hallowed halls of Westminster than Brussels.

Our government haven’t done a very good job of securing EU research facilities in the UK- the most recent, large-scale EU lab was the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxford. There’s a brilliant question from a journalist in the audience, who’s found it really hard to find euro-skeptic academics who’ll speak to the media- have university’s made a mistake not being more neutral about the referendum? They’ve certainly been vocal, but they’re all at one highly polarized end of the spectrum. David points out (again) that academics are generally pretty intelligent people, who can’t stand alongside people who don’t like science and rarely get their statistics correct. But universities are not totally innocent, it’s been too much about money, and they’re at risk of becoming a campaign group. If they can’t differentiate their interests as a university from the finance departments, they’ll stop being an environment that fosters educated debate. Emran makes a pretty brilliant prediction:

If ‘Leave’ win, it wouldn’t be big – 52:48. These numbers would compel government to begin initiation of the UK leaving the EU, which would contain a bounty of deals that would be pretty bad for UK. There’s no way the UK would agree to that without a second referendum. By this point I’m starving and my Itsu dinner is going cold. I stick around for one more great question: when you mention ‘science’ to the general public, their eyes glaze over. Is science the right lens to be having this high-profile debate? The panel disagree, it’s actually hard not to have the debate focused on science. Science larger part of EU/ UK relationship that most people recognize- the community has position that is distinct from population at large. Science in a knowledge based economy, where the best research takes place at highly performing higher education institutions, who are mainly in total agreement.

I left the discussion feeling more certain than ever we have to stay in the EU. We have to be part of something bigger, we have to keep being able to impress on a global stage, we have to keep our brilliant international staff and students. We have to vote Remain.

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