Scientists worry that a Brexit could damage UK research

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While the country remains divided, most scientists seem to agree on one thing: if the UK leaves the EU its science will suffer.

A recent poll conducted by Nature asked 907 active researchers from the UK for their opinion on the EU referendum. Over 80% of the surveyed researchers backed the idea that the UK should remain within the EU and believed that a Brexit would be “Very harmful” or “Somewhat harmful” for UK science.

The figures were maintained when only the scientists who are planning to vote in the referendum were included. Similarly, most EU scientists surveyed in the same poll consider that the EU would also suffer without the UK, but to a lesser extent. The results are in sharp contrast to those for the general UK population that show an even division between the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ sides.

In line with the Nature poll, Stephen Hawking and over 150 fellows of the Royal Society showed their support to the campaign for the ‘remain’ side by signing a letter sent to The Times where they conveyed their concerns that an exit of the UK from the EU could hamper the free movement of scientists and pose “a disaster for UK science”.

Similar views are held by the supporters of the grassroots social media campaign Scientists For EU. With over 50,000 followers in Facebook, the group initiated by researchers Mike Galsworthy and Rob Davidson has been actively lobbying for a UK inside the EU.

What’s at stake

The scientific production of the UK is characterized by its excellence. The UK publishes 15.8% of the world most cited articles despite accounting for less than 1% of the world population. About 16% of the research funding of UK universities comes from the EU.

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The UK is also the main recipient of the research grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC), corresponding to 21% of the total money. Importantly, in the 2014 call for the ERC Consolidator grants, more than half of the funded scientists in the UK were non-nationals, most of them from other European countries.

Scientists that support the ‘leave’ option argue that the UK is a net contributor for the EU budget and that if the UK were to leave the EU, the surplus could be channeled into the UK scientific system. They also claim that being outside the EU would still allow collaboration with other EU countries and programs, similarly to what already happens with Israel, Switzerland or Norway.

To pro-EU scientists, the economic gain would not be such, as most models predict a loss of GDP during the transition that would be larger than the contribution of the UK to the EU. As for the possibility of joining specific EU scientific programs, they highlight problems such as lack of control over funding decisions made by Brussels and the need to create new administration structures.

The case of Switzerland is often cited, as the country had to cut off access to EU funds after the 2014 referendum where the Swiss people voted tougher regulations to limit migration.

Despite this seemingly overwhelming support of scientists to remain within the EU, it is not clear if the scientific community by itself could swing the result of the referendum. According to the Royal Society, more than 5m people are employed in science based occupations in the UK, corresponding to 20% of the total workforce. But ironically, many of these workers are expats, as the UK has been traditionally an important pole of attraction for researchers from all over the world, and will not vote in the referendum. One in every four members of the academic community in the UK comes from abroad.

Get involved

Register to vote in the EU referendum

Get involved with Scientists for the EU

Get involved with Universities for the EU


Featured image via Moyan Brenn/Flickr

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