The clearest demonstration of why the EU offers the UK a bright future might just be… Science

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Guest blogger Dr Mike Galsworthy puts forward the view that in the debate about our membership of the EU, science is rising fast on the agenda. He goes on to argue that science is a huge economic and cultural force that carries one of the strongest arguments we have for staying in.

Why should we care about science?

The global financial crisis taught us that over-dependence on banking and financial services is a recipe for economic misery. The promise of science investment as a robust counter-balance lies in its proven capacity to lift economies out of tight spots, as in the well-documented cases of Finland and Korea. America also, despite its “small government” rhetoric, has driven its tech industry to global success by allocating large public funds to innovative small businesses that grow into tech leaders or get snapped up by them. There are ample data showing that the return on investment for research and innovation is substantial. Strong science creates well-paid, high-growth jobs. This investment can be targeted at solving the energy, health and environment problems that we need to crack for a sustainable future. So science scratches both right-wing and left-wing itches – driving ambitious businesses and economic growth whilst also targeting the type of society, economy and environment we want to live in.

 What does that have to do with the EU?

The supposed “bureaucrats” of the EU actually ‘get’ science. They are increasingly responsive to scientists’ ideas and are putting advice into bold practice, making the EU a world-leading force in science.  Whereas the UK’s science budget has stagnated over many years, shrinking our real terms investment down to the bottom of the G8, the EU has ramped up its science spend. In 2014, despite a reduced overall budget, the EU boosted science by 30% to develop a new seven-year research & innovation programme, called “Horizon 2020”, funded to the tune of €80 billion. The program supports researcher mobility, multinational collaborative projects, academia-business interaction and a lot of small innovative businesses. The new work plans for 2016 and 2017 also strongly target open data in science, big data in public health, better ICT networking and infrastructure and science policy teams for struggling regions. These priorities show real alertness to the global transitions that science is currently undergoing.

We can compare this to the US where the top political layer is increasingly resistant to scientific evidence and public science investment is stagnating. Recently, the US Senate voted 50-49 to say that climate change is not man-made, for example. The popular American physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has given lectures showing the US losing out to Asia and Western Europe in science growth. We, in the UK, are part of that envied growth – not because of our own government, but because of increasing investment at the EU level. The UK is now even ahead of the US for impact of its research output – and a recent analysis has shown that this is attributable to the UK having a higher proportion (>50%) of international collaboration papers than the US (33%). These international collaboration papers carry much more impact than domestic-author-only papers.

Can’t we pull those funds and fund ourselves?

Even though UK scientists win a lions’ share of the competitively-awarded science funds, the UK is still a net contributor to the overall EU budget. This has led some “out” campaigners to suggest that the UK should pull out the UK’s contribution to the EU and then it would have more money to spend at home. So why not just pull out all our EU funds and give more to UK scientists directly? Why go through the EU middleman?

Well, the 15% extra funds that UK science currently gets from the EU is not replaceable by national funds. If we pulled our EU contribution to the common pot, how would a British lab work with a top Dutch lab? We would either pay for the joint work from UK funds exclusively, or get the Dutch to match our funds from their government. Now let’s say we wanted an Italian lab, a German research centre and a Spanish small business on board. Can you imagine everyone trying to get their own governments to fund-match with the right amount of finance, from similar funding streams, and timelines? That amount of bureaucracy is enough to make such a venture unworkable. The EU model common pot model works brilliantly, however. It requires that all governments put money in the pot – and then the UK-Dutch-German-Spanish-Italian team can self-organise and put in a proposal. Simple.

The EU is now a vast and impressive research network. Combined, the EU countries produce 20% more science output than the US according to World Bank data. The EU science program helps connect this powerhouse of a continent into a more coordinated whole. International networks not only produce papers with more impact, but they also facilitate movement of talent and ideas, and help to avoid duplications of work. The multinational projects then also coordinate with pan-EU policy as agreed by the governments of the countries and the European Parliament. So we get a common agenda, economy of scale, reduction of bureaucracy and more value for money. Our investment in the EU goes a long, long way.

Why can’t we follow the Switzerland, Norway, Israel model?

You may know that some non-EU countries, like Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Turkey and Israel participate in the EU science scheme in the same way the EU countries do. They contribute money and so “buy in” from the outside, allowing them to play the same game without being ‘shackled’ to the EU political structure. We could just do that, right? We could pull out of the political union while UK researchers continue to collaborate across borders.

Well, we could but there are significant dangers. Firstly, the UK is now the largest player on the EU science programme – just ahead of Germany. We have real leadership on European research directions and common policy. That’s a lot to give up. Also unlike the other countries, we cannot be easily absorbed as a full member from outside. We’re just too big to be allowed to have full access and dominate the programme, out-competing smaller countries, when we’re not actually in the EU. There would be huge political push-back.

 But the most significant danger comes if a Brexit were to be followed by UK immigration restrictions. The EU’s science programme is based on the free movement of people and so pulling out of our current freedom of movement deal with the EU would cause colossal problems. There is a precedent. In February 2014, Switzerland had a referendum on tightening immigration laws. The EU refused to sign the science partnership contract with Switzerland until it saw the results of the referendum. The Swiss populace voted by less than one percent to have quotas on immigrants and preferentially allow jobs to Swiss people over foreigners.

This one-way restriction meant that the EU felt it could not undermine the programme’s freedom of movement by letting Switzerland enter as a full member. So it demoted the Swiss participation to a lower status. This meant that Switzerland could not coordinate EU projects, compete for mobility grants, compete for prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants, or gain access to small business grants. They were also cut out of the Erasmus scheme which exchanges large numbers of students and supports cooperation projects. The Swiss spent much money and effort to make a Swiss parallel to the ERC grants and to fund their own Erasmus students (paying double, as they paid both for students going out and those coming in). The Swiss negotiated a temporary re-entry on parts of the science programme. But that is up for review in 2016. In short, Swiss science took a big hit and we would too.

The anti-immigration lobby has been a strong voice for the “Out” camp so far so if Britain votes to leave, the government would find itself under pressure to restrict immigration. Beyond the heavy body blow to our EU science programme participation and policy-making, it is delusional to think that this would not impact our national science workforce either. Currently, the UK is a magnet for international talent. Those that come from the EU are guaranteed the ability to settle and build a career regardless of their earnings and difficulties between grants through postdoc years. This sense of safety would be thrown out overnight.  The current foreign workforce should not be taken for granted either.  Many EU researchers in the UK have begun to indicate that they would respond to such a xenophobic message by simply voting with their feet.

 Dr Mike Galsworthy is Programme Director of Scientists for EU. Find out more on their website, see their Facebook community or follow them on Twitter.

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