If the result of the June Brexit referendum depended solely on engineers, scientists, technologists and manufacturers, Britain would almost certainly remain in the European Union. Why do some of the country's brightest minds consider EU membership advantageous?
In a recent survey conducted jointly by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) and the Engineering Professors’ Council, 93 per cent of the 400 respondents said that EU membership is a major benefit to UK science and engineering. A poll of technology companies conducted by techUK found that 70 per cent of its members support the 'Remain' vote, with 15 per cent undecided and the remaining 15 per cent preferring to leave. In a survey by the Institution of Chemical Engineers, 75 per cent of the 1,000 respondents said they will vote for continued EU membership. While the campaign group Scientists for EU has over 53,000 followers on Facebook, the rival Scientists for Britain campaign has only 18 (individual likes) at the time of writing.
Cooperation and money
According to Sarah Main, a director at Case, the benefits for the research community are many.
“From what the respondents to our survey told us, the main benefits are on one hand the funding streams coming directly from the EU for research, but also quite significantly the access to the collaborative network, facilities, equipment and expertise that they thought was provided by the membership in the EU,” she said. “In particular, they value the wider research community, in which they can participate actively through collaboration and sharing of skills and expertise.”
While the 'Leave' proponents are concerned about the fact that the UK contributes much more to the EU budget than it takes out, from the perspective of scientists and engineering researchers the picture looks quite different. Thanks to its world-leading universities and research institutions, what the UK is able to win in EU-funded research grants exceeds what it contributes towards the research and development budget. According to Case data, between 2007 and 2013 the UK contributed €78bn (£63bn) to the overall EU budget. Out of this sum, €5.4bn was earmarked for EU Research & Development programmes. Over the same period, the UK received €48bn from the EU overall, but €8.8bn for research, development and innovation. Out of this €8.8bn, €6.9bn came from the competitive Framework Programme (FP7) and €1.9bn from the European Regional Development Fund and European Structural Funds.
“The UK is very successful in winning competitive funding,” said Vicky Ford, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for the East of England, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Engineering Professors’ Council. “Especially in engineering, more UK people are applying for grants than any other country and we come second after only Germany in the amount and value of grants that we receive.”
Would Brexit really have an effect?
However, opponents to 'Remain' say that none of this grant money would be lost, thanks again to the excellence of the UK's research centres. If the worst comes to the worst, the post-Brexit UK government would easily make up for any loss of EU research funding, as it would now have much more money in hand. There could also be the added benefit of not being bound by what is often perceived as overly stringent European regulations and administrative requirements.
“I have been on these FP7 framework programmes as a referee/adjudicator and it is a programme that I do not feel happy with any more,” said Angus Dalgleish, professor of oncology at St George’s Hospital, whose research into cell-based vaccines was stopped due to the EU clinical trials directive.
“Initially, it encouraged collaboration among European scientists with money for meetings and that was very good. Now, it wants to dictate what we research, where the money goes.”
Professor Dalgleish, a member of the UK Independence Party, was one of the witnesses at the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology’s inquiry examining the relationship between the EU membership and the effectiveness of UK research and innovation. Speaking on behalf of the Scientists for Britain campaign, he expressed confidence that in the post-Brexit Britain, international research collaboration would thrive as it has always done.
“If we leave the EU, we do not leave Europe and we do not leave collaborating with the rest of the world, whether it’d be America or Australia,” said Dalgleish.
Switzerland is frequently cited as a model for the post-Brexit science cooperation with Europe. With a population of a little over eight million, Switzerland is home to some of Europe’s most prestigious universities. The country has retained its political independence from the EU but is bound by a battery of 120 bilateral agreements in order to be able to reap the benefits of the single market and the EU cooperative networks.
“Having bilateral agreements does not allow us to be part of the decision-making process in Brussels. For example, in the field of research, we do not participate in the Competitiveness Council meetings and are not part of the body that prepares those meetings. Neither does Switzerland have Members of the European Parliament and has therefore a weak role in the preparation of essential legislation of the EU education, research and innovation programmes,” the Swiss Universities association explained in a statement to E&T.
Until quite recently, Switzerland had the status of an Associated Country, which provided access to various programme and advisory committees. However, after the 2014 referendum, in which citizens of Switzerland voted by 50.3 per cent for limiting free movement of people from EU member states, this vote put Switzerland in direct breach of one of the non-negotiables of EU cooperation. The country’s brilliant researchers have paid the price.
“Switzerland was demoted to the status of Third Country in Horizon 2020,” Swiss Universities said. “Because of the importance and the excellence of the Swiss science system for Europe, Switzerland managed to have a mixed status [until the end of 2016] in Horizon 2020, that of a ‘partially Associated Country’. From January 2017, the status of Switzerland is still not known.”
Being a Third Country limits not only access to EU research funding but also the variety of programmes open for participation. As every EU-collaborative project requires participation of three EU member states, the Third Country researchers always only come as number four.
“There is no advantage for the Swiss science system to be outside of the EU,” Swiss Universities concluded.
The case of Switzerland is quite significant as limiting the free movement of EU citizens is one of the major motivations behind the Brexit idea. Some have suggested that the UK, being a stronger global player than Switzerland, would be able to secure a better deal. However, Vicky Ford doubts that.
“These countries don’t want to make it look like it is easy to leave the EU because that would only support the extremist parties in their countries,” Ford said.
“Any suggestion that we would be able to get a nice new deal on science and research is simply not happening.”
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.