Would 'Brexit' hurt British science?

Editor's note: This article was written by Adam Fitchett for Filibuster, a website for young people managed entirely by student volunteers. You can find the original article here. We're republishing it in partnership with Filibuster.

The London headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, the largest pharmaceutical company in the U.K. Credit: GSK website

The London headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, the largest pharmaceutical company in the U.K. Credit: GSK website

Stephen Hawking and the Royal Society's scientists have claimed that leaving the EU would be a "disaster" for the U.K. They should stick to black holes rather than supranational politics.

It may seem silly to question the judgment of a man whose IQ approaches 160, especially when that man is eminent astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking, and he is joined by 150 members of the prestigious Royal Society, all of whom firmly support the U.K. remaining in the European Union. Science however, does not heed authority—only reason and evidence.

Hawking and his associates provide their reasons: they believe that Brexit would be a “disaster” for U.K. science because it would lead to a severe loss of funding, cooperation and talent. The evidence however, does not support these claims.

The body which awards funding for scientific research within the EU is called the European Research Council. Under the Horizon 2020 program, the EU allocates a certain amount of its annual budget (about €80 billion) to organizations that promote innovation.

The U.K. receives a truly minuscule proportion of this money, about €240 million euros (or £190 million at current exchange rates). Compare this to the roughly £6 billion that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has allocated to domestic science this year.

A 2013 report from the Royal Society showed that only about three percent of British research and development funding comes from EU programs. Any loss of funding suffered by U.K. science after a Brexit would be very small.

Ultimately however, there need not be any loss of funding at all. The U.K. is a net contributor to the EU budget; we pay around £13 billion a year and receive £4.5 billion back, which means we lose about £8.5 billion. Exactly how much money we would save in the event of leaving the EU depends on the outcome of negotiations (whether we choose to leave the EEA, to opt in to certain EU programs such Europol etc.), but it is likely to be a significant proportion of the £8.5 billion, and would certainly be enough to allow us to plug a tiny £190 million hole in scientific R&D funding.

Most importantly, leaving the EU gives us total control over how we allocate our own money. In an independent U.K., it will be the British public and our elected representatives who decide how to apportion science funding, as opposed to unelected EU officials.

Turning now to freedom of movement, we find a strange inconsistency in the arguments of pro-EU scientists. On the one hand, they argue that leaving the EU would lead to a loss of freedom of movement and hence a severe reduction in the number of talented scientists coming to the U.K. On the other hand, they admit that many foreign scientists in the U.K. are from countries outside of the EU, and so did not benefit from EU freedom of movement in the first place.

Highly skilled people (including scientists) from around the world would continue to be welcomed to Britain in the event of a Brexit; advocates of immigration control are only interested in reducing the intake of low skilled workers, not highly skilled scientists and science students. In fact, if we take back control of our immigration policy from the EU, we could make it even easier for foreign scientists to come to the U.K.

As a member of the European Union, Britain takes part in many Europe-wide scientific research programs. Cooperation however, is not dependent upon political union, and there is no reason to think leaving the EU would mean leaving any of these scientific programs.

The scientific equivalent of the single market or EEA is the European Research Area (ERA). Being part of the EU is just as unnecessary for ERA membership as it is for EEA membership; Norway, Israel and Iceland are all members of the ERA and participate in thousands of European research projects.

Concern that leaving the EU would mean no more cooperation with CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) or the European Space Agency is even more ridiculous, since these organizations aren't even formally affiliated with the EU. Even membership of the single market is not a prerequisite for a flourishing scientific industry.

Professor Stephen Hawking, an expert on black holes but perhaps not on supranational politics. Credit: The Independent

Professor Stephen Hawking, an expert on black holes but perhaps not on supranational politics. Credit: The Independent

Switzerland is ranked second in the world for citations per scientific paper. The first and third most successful pharmaceutical companies in the world (Novartis and Roche respectively, measuring by 2014 global sales) are based there. Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology is the ninth best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education Rankings.

Granted, Switzerland has a special economic arrangement with the EU; but surely the U.K., being the EU's largest export market, would have the leverage to negotiate something similar?
It is interesting (and very disappointing) that British scientists, who tend to align themselves with leftist politics, seem to care more about money than about political principles.

Ultimately, Britain's membership of the EU is an issue of accountability: will the decisions that affect our lives be made by elected representatives or by an unelected elite? Given this, how could any self-respecting left wing scientist cast aside democracy for the sake of a minuscule increase in research funding?

Thankfully, they don’t have to; the interests of British science accord with a return to greater democratic control of the institutions that govern us. Anyone who casts an honest eye over the evidence should be able to see that.

Cover credit: Flickr