Brexit: why Britain exiting the EU is (probably) bad news for science

Untitled-3-01With the upcoming referendum on UK membership in the EU, British citizen and MIT postdoctoral fellow Peter Harvey discusses his views on the debate and what it could mean for UK science.

Note, all views expressed are the personal opinions of the author (a UK scientist living in the US) and don’t represent an official stance from AFS or MIT.

Brexit? As everything now has to have a catchy abbreviation, Brexit is the term being used for the possibility of Britain (or the UK more accurately) exiting the European Union (EU). I’ve talked to a few people here in the US that didn’t know the UK was a even a member of the EU, so see this BBC article for a quick history of the EU. Residents of the UK are having a referendum on the 23rd June to vote on whether to remain as members of the EU or to leave it. Before I continue, I want to encourage anyone from the UK, who hasn’t already done so, to register to vote. You have until the 7th June and can apply for a postal vote if you live overseas. I got mine in the post last week. So no excuses, please vote!

There are a whole host of reasons for why people want to stay or leave (see Box 1 and plenty more has been written about the pros and cons, such as this piece), but the focus of this article is going to be the potential effects on science funding and what scientists think about the referendum.


Why should I care? If you’re from the UK then I hope you already realise why this issue is incredibly important (and to reiterate, please VOTE). If you’re European then it could make a huge difference to you if you wanted to visit, work, or live in the UK, though unfortunately you don’t get a say in the outcome. If you’re from outside of Europe, then hopefully it will help you understand why so many people are talking about this on twitter, or at least give you some ‘comfort’ that politics manages to get in the way of science no matter where you live. If you don’t want to have to read the rest of my long and rambling blog post, then check out this short video for a brief rundown of the impacts of the EU on UK science.

Ok, I guess it might be important. What does Brexit have to do with science? It turns out quite a lot, but how much and in what way Brexit could potentially affect science in the UK depends on who you ask. There is no doubting that the EU is a scientific powerhouse. It produces 34% of the world’s scientific output putting it top of the rankings with China 2nd and the US 3rd. At the moment, the UK plays a key role in the decision making and direction of the science that is funded. It also does very well in receiving science funding from the EU pot, with the UK receiving 11% (€8.8 billion) of the EU R&D funds, despite contributing only €5.4 billion to the pot (2007-2013). It should be pointed out that, across all sectors, the UK sends more money to the EU than it gets back (though I dispute the £350 million/week that the Leave campaign continues to use). I simply mention these numbers to highlight that the UK receives a substantial proportion of the EU R&D budget.


While doing well for competitive EU funding, this €8.8 billion actually only accounts for around 3% of UK R&D funding over the same time frame, though for universities alone this is somewhat higher (~10%). What is perhaps more important, however, is that while the science budget from the UK government has been stagnating and even falling, the money the EU allocates to science is continuing to increase (see Box 2). This discrepancy has led to EU sources being responsible for a whopping 73% of the increase in university research funding from 2007-14. At a time of increasing austerity and budget cutting, the EU seems to have a more reliable and consistent record of increasing support for science funding than national governments. As has been seen in the US too, inconsistency in long-term funding is a real issue for people that work in the scientific community (as our recent article in eLIFE highlighted) and evidence of continued support for science can be a major boon for researchers.

A second major role that the EU plays in science is in collaborations and training. The freedom of movement across Europe (for those that don’t know, EU nationals are allowed to visit, work, and live anywhere in the EU without requiring a visa) has led to an expanded pool of researchers that can freely move across the continent to transfer skills and build connections. My personal experience of the US immigration system has led me to realise how truly great a feature of the EU this is. Collaboration across Europe and beyond is very much a feature of EU science funding, with international networks encouraged and pan-European meetings and working groups a commonplace occurrence. International scientific papers have been shown to have around 40% more impact than domestic-only research and the 62% of the UK’s research are now international collaborations (compared to only 39.6% in the US).

Pro-Brexit groups argue that the science budget will be unaffected upon leaving the EU as the ‘wasted’ money we spend on the EU can be reinvested in UK interests, such as science. Even accepting the widely disputed figure of £252 per person per year often stated by leave campaigners (the true figure is closer to £60-89 per person per year, depending on how you calculate it), it is at the moment unclear what will actually be funded upon a vote to leave, with plenty of unrealistic promises being made as to what the ‘surplus’ will be spent on. These figures also ignore the projected drop in the UK’s GDP that is expected to occur upon leaving the EU, which is likely to be far bigger than the current net contribution to the EU.

One of the complicating factors, and one of the main aspects pointed out by those in favour of leaving, is that membership of the EU is not necessarily a prerequisite for receiving EU science funding. Non-EU member countries, such as Switzerland and Israel, are awarded significant amounts of EU funding and are often integral members of European research consortia. However, this level of participation upon exiting the EU is by no means guaranteed and would have to be negotiated. Such a negotiation will likely be time-consuming and cast doubt and uncertainty on funding and research projects in the short-term, which are never helpful encumbrances in science.

It is hard to argue that Switzerland is not doing well scientifically and it is true that is has access to the EU single market and many other EU benefits. However, in order to make these deals Switzerland had to accept a number of unpopular caveats. Firstly, free movement of people. That’s right, Switzerland has the same control over its borders (i.e. none) in regards to EU nationals as an EU member has. In fact, immigration into Switzerland is currently twice as high as the UK. A recent referendum in Switzerland that led to the blocking of this free movement resulted in Switzerland being cut off from key science projects, so open immigration is absolutely a stipulation for access to full science funding. Secondly, Switzerland has to make contributions to the EU in the same way the UK does. The levels of contribution are only 60% of what the UK pays, but with the drawback of no representation in the European parliament. Finally, Switzerland is also subjected to certain EU laws and regulations in order to participate, but again have no representation and so cannot influence said laws and regulations. See this excellent video by a Swiss national living in the UK for more background. So, in order to become a participant in European projects in the same way as Switzerland (as is often held up as a model for the UK in a post-Brexit future), the UK would wind back in almost exactly the same position in terms of immigration, contributions, and external legal regulation, but without any influence or say on what happens. There is also no guarantee that the UK could establish this position overnight and there are signs that the EU may make life difficult for the UK in the immediate aftermath of a split in order to deter other members from leaving in the future.

What do scientists think? There have been two recent polls asking scientists about their views on the EU,  with both showing substantial support amongst the science community for remaining as a member of the EU. An open survey by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) found that 93% of research scientists and engineers thought the EU was a “major benefit” to UK research. A further poll by Nature found that 83% of UK researchers would vote to stay. It should be noted that Scientists for Brexit, a pro-leave campaign group, dispute these numbers for reasons mainly due to the ‘self-selection’ nature of the polls, but so far have not provided any data of their own. These poll numbers also match closely with the views of leading economists. The Times newspaper is currently conducting a Higher Education EU referendum survey, and it will be interesting to see the results. If you want to participate, then make sure you do before the poll closes on the 8th June.

With regards to influential science personnel and institutions, support for EU membership is even more clear-cut. Of the 132 vice-chancellors (i.e. the acting heads) represented by Universities UK, over 100 have come out in support of remaining in the EU and not one has advocated leaving. The current and previous two presidents of the Royal Society (the UK national academy of science) have supported EU membership. UK-based Nature magazine, one of the most influential scientific journals, has stated that science in the UK and elsewhere would benefit from the UK remaining in the EU and even UNESCO has stated that Brexit would be harmful to UK science. The House of Lords (the upper house of the Parliament of the UK) recently held an inquiry into EU membership and UK science, finding an “overwhelming balance of opinion” for remaining in and indicating that the loss of ability to shape EU policy would hurt UK science, even if achieving Associate Member status (like Switzerland) was possible. Of the 72 written statements collected by the inquiry, the only 2 in favour of leaving the EU were from the leave campaigns Vote Leave and Scientists for Britain. A collection of the some of the most prominent UK scientists have also come out in support of EU membership, including in an open letter to the Times newspaper with Scientists for EU, a science-focused pro-remain campaign group.

I’ve seen a lot of comments online saying that scientists shouldn’t be allowed an opinion on this subject as they receive EU funding and, hence, are biased. Research scientists devote their careers to recognising and accounting for potential bias, even their own. There is no better equipped group to advocate for themselves without utilising irrational or misleading figures. Should scientists be expected to risk their livelihoods because otherwise the entire population of Turkey is going to migrate to the UK? Lets be clear, any drop in science funding will result in fewer jobs for scientists. In a career path full of uncertainties and risk, funding cuts are of huge concern. It is this uncertainty in what will happen after Brexit that makes me personally nervous, particularly as those politicians pushing for an exit don’t exactly have the greatest track record (Boris Johnson, potential future prime minister and one of the figureheads of the Leave campaign, has held many contradictory views on Brexit and seems to be utilising the referendum for his own benefit). For those more acquainted with the US election, a similarly liberal application of ‘facts’ and ‘statistics’ has been a common theme in this debate too, from both sides of the campaign. Michael Gove, another key member of the Leave Campaign, recently stated that the country has had enough of ‘experts’. Understandable given his seemingly random implementation of policies as education minister, but not a great indication of how well thought out and researched the views of such politicians are. Clear representation of facts from both the leave and remain campaigns would go a long way in helping the public make an informed decision, rather than relying on unnecessary scare-mongering and decisive arguments.

For the record, I have personally only received minimal sums (around 2% of my total funding) from EU sources in the course of my research career, none of it for income. More important to me than the funding, the opportunities to meet other researchers in my field and learn new techniques was vital to shaping me into the researcher I am now, and without this small source of EU funding, such possibilities would have been much more limited. This experience is why I am against Brexit from a science viewpoint. However, if there were enough societal arguments in favour of a split then this would absolutely sway my mind. Unfortunately, so far the main arguments I have seen are not factually accurate (the £350 million per week figure, for example), confuse the EU with the European Court of Human Rights (entirely separate organisations, plus the ECHR is absolutely a good thing to be a part of), or seem to driven by intolerance and bigotry fears about immigration and refugees.

If anyone believes they can convince me with rational arguments and factual data (i.e. not taken from the official campaigns) for why we should leave the EU, then feel free to reach out to me to explain them. Otherwise, I will be voting for us to stay in the EU and encourage you to do the same.

I’ll leave you with a few last thoughts. There is a significant chance that leaving the EU would negatively affect the scientific community in the UK and further afield, with other adverse effects on the economy, environment and society as a whole. Even if you write this off as unnecessary scaremongering, it is hard to argue that the last 70 years of peace and friendship across Europe has allowed science to flourish across borders and bring the continent together. Why should we risk the status quo when the alternative has so much associated risk with, in my eyes at least, very little benefit? Its easy to forget what Europe was before the EU, but we should never allow ourselves to overlook history. Surely it is better to work as part of Europe to solve the problems of the EU, rather than be isolated and have no say in the future. And finally, remember that the biggest beneficiaries of a UK/EU split will be Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin. If that isn’t enough to make you think twice about voting to leave, then I’m not sure what is.

(Click on the highlighted sections for links to the original articles/webpages).

Contributed by Dr. Peter Harvey, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biological Engineering at MIT.

(Note, before people complain about spelling I decided to use UK English for a change as I’m British and discussing a UK-centric topic. Plus using z’s everywhere and dropping u’s brings me out in a cold sweat every time I do it…)

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