Scientific excellence ‘at risk’ from Brexit

The UK’s leading role in shaping the future of science would be lost if voters choose to leave research ‘superpower’, pro-Remain voices warn

May 29, 2016
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Scientific excellence across the entire European Union will be damaged if the UK exits because Britons will not be able to shape the continent’s multibillion-pound research agenda towards funding the best projects, it has been warned.

Without the UK’s input into the direction of the EU’s research programme, worth about €16 billion (£12.3 billion) between 2014 and 2020 under Horizon 2020, science funding is far more likely to be allocated in a way that does not support absolute excellence, said Vivienne Stern, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit.

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Speaking at an event on the impact of the EU on science and education held at the UCL Institute of Education on 23 May, Ms Stern said that there was already much dismay among some EU countries that the UK was awarded far more in research funds than it contributed directly – largely because EU funding was awarded on the basis of excellence, rather than how much each country paid towards research programmes.

If there was a vote to leave the EU in the 23 June referendum, the UK would lose its voice in the ongoing excellence v equity debate – with funding more likely to tip towards a pork-barrel approach to funding, she said.

“The EU needs us to stay in otherwise the debate would be on the side of equity [over excellence],” said Ms Stern.

Mike Galsworthy, founder of Scientists for EU, agreed with Ms Stern’s comments, saying that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would “pull a vital cog out of the machine” that is international research.

Without the UK’s central commitment to the EU, “Eastern European countries would be very resentful of us plundering talent from their countries”, as well as making a net gain from research funding, said Dr Galsworthy, a visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He said it was clear that “given our size and position in Europe…we would need to make a net contribution [to research funding] and have freedom of movement…without having policy influence” to remain in the EU research framework in the event of Brexit.

“If we were to leave the EU, we would be pulling out our government and our 73 MEPs…and would have to appoint lobbyists to stand around in Brussels to lobby for us,” he said, adding that “this doesn’t sound very democratic or efficient”.

Dr Galsworthy said that the science superpower of the EU also made it possible to assemble the research “dream teams” that make up today’s cross-border collaborations.

“If there was no EU science programme, we would all run off to our respective governments, but a project might not suit smaller governments research streams or the timings would not match, which means [big projects] just wouldn’t happen,” he said.

“If you have various nations chipping into a common pot, you can put together the dream teams you want,” he explained.

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