This year, on June 23, the United Kingdom will vote on whether to remain in the European Union (EU), or leave it. Although the effects on trade, the economy, immigration, politics, and sovereignty have all been heavily and aggressively debated in the media, the issue of the impact of a Brexit vote on UK science has barely registered in the public domain.
So what exactly do scientists, engineers, and academics in general think about the EU referendum? What benefits does the UK reap from being part of the EU, and what would happen if it left?
Let’s take a look.
The Central Hall of London’s Natural History Museum, a globally-acclaimed research institution. Gandolfo Cannatella/Shutterstock
The UK and continental Europe have been responsible for a plethora of truly revolutionary scientific progress. This corner of the pale blue dot has seen Einstein conjure up his theories of relativity, which were built upon the foundations set down by Newton before him. It is where volcanology was born, thanks to Pliny the Elder and Younger; it is where quantum mechanics was conceived; it is the very place where the theory of evolution was authored by both Darwin and Wallace.
“Interestingly, science is one of those areas where the UK both has a very individual heritage, but also one which is closely tied to Europe,” Imran Khan, head of the British Science Association – which is officially neutral in the debate – told IFLScience. Khan notes that the UK is “the inheritor of the pan-European scientific revolution that started with Galileo and Copernicus, and continental collaboration and competition has been a huge feature of British science for centuries.”
In the present, both the UK and the other EU member states have been working closely together to decipher the universe. The largest environmental satelli
te monitoring program ever devised – Copernicus – is just one large-scale, EU-funded example of this type of cooperation, but there are countless other EU-wide collaborations on natural and physical sciences, where funding and intelligence is continuously shared, also taking place.
Additionally, the EU has also been responsible for huge environmental protection directives that have improved the lives of people up and down the continent. The UK itself has cleaner air, cleaner coastlines and waterways, lead-free petrol, safer food, and stronger green space protection thanks to EU legislation.
Image in text: A breakdown of European Research Council (ERC) and European Commission (EC) funding awarded between 2006 and 2015 by country. The UK was second only to Germany. Digital Research Reports
Show Me The Money
Cooperation on these projects and initiatives would continue to some degree even if a Brexit vote occurred, but they would be negatively affected by it. Restricting the free movement of people around the continent would hinder and perhaps entirely prevent scientists from moving across institutions and spreading their expertise across research groups, just as Switzerland, a European nation outside of the EU, experienced in 2014.
Far more directly, however, the funding the UK would receive would evaporate. The UK, one of the richest nations on Earth, contributed around $6.1 billion to the EU’s research program over the period 2007 – 2013; during this time, it received $9.9 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities – making it a net receiver of science funding. These figures aren’t projections or estimates; they’re recorded facts.
This funding goes towards the UK’s most cutting-edge, world-leading scientific fields, including nanotechnology, physics, engineering, computer science, geoscience, and medicine. Just one example: A recent report found that, in the last decade, EU funding has given up to $183 million to UK cancer research, amounting to over 40 percent of public money given to the work.
A vote for Brexit would not only remove all this crucial funding – up to $1.45 billion from the EU per year, according to one study – but the UK would also be unable to influence EU decisions as to where international scientific funding should best be allocated. Professor Paul Nurse, director of the London-based Francis Crick Institute and the former president of the Royal Society, likened a Brexit vote to betraying the next generation of scientists.
“Being in the EU gives [the UK] access to ideas, people and to investment in science,” he said, as reported by BBC News. “That, combined with mobility (of EU scientists), gives us increased collaboration, increased transfer of people, ideas and science – all of which history has shown us drives science.”
An Overwhelming Majority
Why are so many scientists pro-EU? Probably because the available evidence all points towards membership being, overall, a good thing. angellodeco/Shutterstock
Scientists and academics, more than almost any other group, recognize that the scientific legacy of the UK is threatened by a Brexit vote. One Nature poll showed that, out of 907 active UK researchers, 83 percent of them wanted to remain in the EU. The Science Council held a debate between pro- and anti-EU academics and figureheads, and a final audience vote revealed 84 percent wanted to remain. Just recently, 150 leading scientists – including Stephen Hawking – have signed a letter to The Times saying that a Brexit vote would be a “disaster for UK science and universities.”
Scientists for Britain is the only major group of academics wanting to leave the EU. Professor Angus Dalgleish, a cancer expert and a United Kingdom Independence Party candidate, a right-wing political group who are known for their strong anti-EU stance, is one of its spokespeople. According to Channel 4’s Fact Check, he once said that “the bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can easily make up with the money we would save.”
However, as is demonstrated by the recent history of science-based, UK-directed funding to and from the EU, this isn’t quite true. The UK is a net contributor to the overall EU budget, but in terms of science, it gets back far more grant money than it sends. As many others have argued, the anti-EU argument espoused by Scientists for Britain is highly rhetorical.
“UK science recently surpassed the US in productivity due to, according to a 2013 government report, [the UK’s] higher rates of international collaboration,” Dr. Mike Galsworthy, founder of the pro-EU group Scientists for EU, told IFLScience. “If our policy leadership goes, our coordination roles on big multinational science go, and our freedom of movement goes... that's all a substantial step down.”
He posits that, in the event of a Brexit, “the UK will still be a robust science power, but not the country sitting in the driving seat of the global science superpower that the EU has now become,” adding that “the past does not guarantee the future.” Any money the UK would save by not having to contribute to the EU’s science budget “would be swallowed up by an immediate economic (and long lasting) shock on the economy,” a shock that every single major financial institution across the world is predicting will occur.
The Shoulders of Giants
Most of the arguments about the EU referendum tend to have their roots in principles more than anything logical or concrete. Although the benefits of voting to remain in the supranational conglomeration have clear, demonstrable, evidenced benefits for UK science, it is also possible to reduce even this argument to one of principle.
Science has never been the domain of just one person, but many. Although some of the most famous discoveries have been driven by the mind of an individual – Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, or Rosalind Franklin’s first images of the structure of DNA, for example – their work would mean nothing without the collaborative effort of a team, or the legacy of science they built upon. Britain remaining in the EU allows this small nation – in several ways – to stand on the shoulders of giants. Cooperation would be made a lot harder if Britain chose to leave.
Charles Darwin's 1837 sketch of the tree of life, from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species, which includes the famous “I think” inscription. Without this theory, modern biological science wouldn’t exist. Scewing/Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain
Doubt is also one of the primary characteristics of science, and it is practiced by all those who immerse themselves in it. There must be a good reason, then, why an overwhelming majority of scientists wish to stay in the EU, after all the evidence has been considered. This opinion is not the result of a subjective gut feeling – it’s a consensus, based on the best available data. That is how science works, and the public should pay attention.
“Science and research have an impact on all our lives, as will any changes made following the outcome of the EU referendum,” Khan added. “So it is vital that this debate isn't just had with scientists – but with anyone who cares about what sort of country we want to be.” Science has to be a major topic for discussion during this EU referendum; without the voices of British scientists, a huge piece of the puzzle is missing.
It’s now up to the denizens of the United Kingdom to decide whether to listen to them or not, but perhaps they should consider it this way: If you were about to burn a bridge, and 4 out of 5 scientists strongly insisted it was a bad idea, would you still proceed, or would you reconsider?
Tonight, June 7, is the last chance for eligible British voters to register to vote in the EU referendum. Sign up here before 2359 BST to have your say.