PHOTO: The Large Hadron Collider — one of the achievements of Britain’s involvement with European scientific research
The United Kingdom prides itself on the breakthrough contributions of its scientists. From Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin to Francis Crick to Tim Berners-Lee, the quest for knowledge and advance is interwoven with the national story.
In the referendum on European union membership, the Leave campaign has declared that it is defending “Britain”. So it is both ironic and depressing that one of the immediate effects of a victory for Brexit on June 23 will be a crippling of Britain’s scientific community.
One of the challenges for UK science has been the move from discovery to application. The UK is at the forefront of theoretical advance, but often has been left behind when it comes to reaping the benefits. For example, proton beam therapy began at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Lancashire in 1989 — almost 30 years later, while there are about 60 facilities worldwide, the UK has only just committed to building new centres with modern specifications.
The problem, put bluntly, is funding. Moving from principle to practice requires investment, and the British Government has been far from steady in its support of scientific development. In recent years, effective financial backing of science and technology has been below inflation, despite on-paper claims of increased investment.
Private sector investment includes venture capital finance and partnerships between industry and government to support science, but these have been constrained by the limits on funding from Westminster. They also can face the tension between the business world’s “short-termism” which can be incompatible with the far longer timescales for return on science investment.
Even if Westminster was more forthcoming, the nature of science today means that many projects can only be sustained between countries. The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, was only possible through international approach to collaboration. The envisaged upgrade to the machine in the next 15 years, requiring hundreds of millions of pounds, will rest even more on co-operation rather than a national venture.
Facing the constraints on funding, UK science has benefited from increasing levels of European Union resources. Almost €1.4 billion (£1.11 billion) has been allocated since 2014 — “the equivalent to another Research Council”, according to university officials.
For example, since 2007 Britain has won almost 1,400 of more than 5,000 grants from the European Research Council, receiving 22% of allocated funds. That support has backed achievements from 3D imaging for regenerative medicine to the understanding of proto-galaxies to the latest advances in nano-science.
With Brexit, UK institutions and individuals might still be able to appeal for support under some schemes for EU collaboration outside the Union. However, these would be a fraction of what is possible now. Put bluntly, British science would be on the outside looking in.
The Leave campaign has belatedly addressed the issue. Last week three of its leaders — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Priti Patel — included science with other areas which would be affected, vaguely promising:
There is more than enough money to ensure that those who now get funding from the EU – including universities, scientists, family farmers, regional funds, cultural organisations and others – will continue to do so while also ensuring that we save money that can be spent on our priorities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Leave’s preference for wishful declaration rather than specifics, there was no detail on either science or on funding, which purportedly would come from “not having to give tax refunds to big businesses, as well as by taxing offshore companies”.
Science depends on scientists, and the free movement of specialists is likely to be hindered by a UK departure from the EU.
The Particle Physics Unit at Birmingham University is a telling example: of 31 personnel, 12 are non-British citizens of EU countries. Without their diversity of experience, understanding, and skills, the capabilities and competitiveness of the group would be greatly diminished.
No one knows whether the EU staff will have to apply to retain their positions in a post-Brexit world, given the Leave campaign’s condemnation of immigration. The hope is that they can continue without a period in which their contributions would be suspended, but there is no guidance to assure this. The uncertainty is even greater for researchers on short-term contracts.
The converse barriers also apply: UK scientists would no longer be guaranteed mobility across the EU. New arrangements for activities in EU countries will no doubt be pursued, but there will have to be a significant investment of time and resource just to get back to the point where we are today.
Students learn about work of University of Birmingham’s Particle Physics Unit
No wonder then that, of Nature magazine’s poll of 907 UK researchers in late March, 83% favored Remain with only 12% supporting Leave. EU-based researchers offered support for British colleagues by a 77-17 margin.
Beyond their individual preferences, the researchers offered gloom when asked about Brexit’s effect on science. A total of 78% said departure from the EU would be harmful, with more than 50% saying it would be “very harmful”. Only 9% saw any benefit from departure from the EU.
The UK Government is already pursuing damage control. On Saturday, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee called for an immediate risk analysis of the impact of Brexit and contingency plans against adverse consequences. The chair, Nicola Blackwood MP, concluded:
It is clear that there are benefits of being in the EU for UK life sciences and research bodies in terms of collaboration and access to an EU market many times bigger than the UK market alone. If we left, our life sciences sector would still have to follow EU regulations to sell in the single market. But Britain wouldn’t get a say in setting those rules, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.
The Swiss experience in particular should be a cautionary tale. When the Swiss voted to curtail free movement of people, the EU revoked access science funding and collaboration, undermining the country’s science sector.
However, any measures would be no more than a bit of fire-fighting after Brexit had started a destructive blaze. The Committee summarized in April:
The overwhelming balance of opinion made known to this Committee from the UK science community valued greatly the UK’s membership of the European Union. Science is a major component of the UK’s membership of the EU….The ease with which talented researchers can move between EU Member States and the UK, the EU’s fertile environment for research collaboration, harmonised regulations, access to EU research facilities and the availability of substantial funding for research combine to make EU membership a highly prized feature of the research ecosystem in the UK. Furthermore, the UK plays a leading role in the development of EU policies and decision-making processes that relate to science and research.
In a campaign where Leave is counting on shock images rather than scientific investigation — immigrants overrunning these islands, the land of the Magna Carta surrendered to faceless Brussels officials — the details of the real damage to progress may not make their mark on the ballot box.
Perhaps, then, it is best to turn to one scientist to elevate those details into a call to arms. Stephen Hawking has offered a brief but telling history of the UK and Europe:
Gone are the days when we could stand on our own, against the world. We need to be part of a larger group of nations.