UK science and the EU

“UK science doesn’t need the European Union” – this was the hotly debated motion at a recent Science Council debate I attended between the official Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe campaigns, which included representatives from Scientists for Britain and Scientists for EU. Judging by the exit poll (16% leave; 84% remain), the motion was soundly defeated. However, despite much disagreement, both camps agreed that the UK is excellent at research and international collaboration is vital for this.

In the run up to the UK’s EU Referendum on 23 June, there has been much activity across the science community exploring the complex relationship between UK science and the EU, and debate on whether UK research excellence is helped, or hindered, by this relationship. While the Microbiology Society has not taken a position on the Referendum, this blog post aims to provide an impartial summary of sources of information and topics relating to the EU and UK science.

In search of the evidence

There are some useful evidence-based sources of information about the relationship between the EU and UK science, for example:

  • The Royal Society’s UK research and the European Union evidence-gathering project provides an accessible overview of how research is funded by the EU and how this impacts UK science. The project also examines researcher mobility and collaborations, and the role of the EU in regulation and science policy.
  • The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC) have also published a report, which includes data on the distribution of EU research funding across EU regions, as well as views from across the science community.
  • The Royal Society of Biology’s policy team have collated some useful reports and resources regarding UK Life Sciences and Europe. They have also produced a briefing that summarises references to science in the HM Treasury analysis of long-term economic impact of EU membership and its alternatives.
  • The report (and evidence submissions) from the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee’s Relationship between EU membership and UK science inquiry provides a good overview of the different facets to the EU–UK science relationship, views about the pros and cons of this relationship, and consideration of scenarios for UK science after the Referendum. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee are also currently holding an EU regulation of life science inquiry.

What is the EU–UK science relationship?

The relationship between the EU and UK science is broad and complex. The House of Lords Select Committee and others have considered several key aspects to this relationship, including research funding, collaboration and mobility, regulation and the provision of science policy advice and influence.

Research funding

The Royal Society report on EU research funding highlights that, over the period of 2007–2013, while the UK was an overall net contributor to the EU budget, it is estimated that the UK received €8.8 billion of funding for research, development and innovation activities over 2007–2017, €3.4 billion more than it contributed to EU science funding. This represented the fourth largest share of the €107 billion EU expenditure on research, and was only second to Germany in terms of competitive funding awarded.

The House of Lords Select Committee inquiry also emphasised the importance of EU research funding, including benefits such as longer-term investment and support for interdisciplinary science, but highlighted complexities in the allocation and administration of funding. For example, while UK academic researchers have performed very well in EU funding competitions, participation of UK businesses has been lower than average. The UK also receives a lower proportion of EU funds for research infrastructure compared to other Member States that have lower existing capacity.

A key area of contention and uncertainty is whether leaving the EU would adversely affect UK science funding. For example, the House of Lords inquiry found that there was broad agreement that the UK could potentially continue to access EU research funding as a non-member by gaining Associated Country status (like Norway and Switzerland). However, it has been argued that the UK would have reduced participation and influence in science funding decision-making and priority setting.

The inquiry also highlighted that it is unclear if national science funding would be increased to cover any shortfall, or if contingency plans were being prepared for UK science, in the event of a Brexit.

European Regulation

Regulations implemented or directed by the EU affect many aspects of UK research, including animal research, clinical trials and the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The House of Lords Select Committee inquiry found that harmonisation of regulations across EU Member States, and the UK being able to contribute to development of these regulations, was generally considered beneficial for UK science. However, the Committee did hear about specific inadequacies, for example, with GMOs and clinical trials regulations, which may have inhibited the UK’s international competitiveness. However, it was acknowledged that the UK had played a key role in improving regulations on clinical trials and data sharing.

The Committee did express concern about a trend towards EU-wide regulations, which may be less flexible for meeting national needs compared to EU directives, which countries decide on how to implement nationally.

Acknowledging that even those in favour of continued EU membership had criticised aspects of the relationship between the EU and UK science, the Committee concluded that if the UK chooses to remain in the EU, the UK Government could consider advancing reforms, including those related to regulation, to enhance the relationship between the EU and UK science.

The Royal Society’s report provides some good case studies about specific EU regulations, and how they impact UK science.

Collaboration and researcher mobility

The House of Lords Select Committee inquiry identified facilitation of collaboration between European researchers, but also with non-EU countries, as one of the most significant benefits of the UK’s EU membership. The inquiry identified three advantages of EU membership in this area: collaborative funding schemes and programmes; freedom of movement rules facilitating research mobility; and promoting and aiding participation in shared European (not EU) infrastructures – for example, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The Committee identified freedom of movement as critical to the UK science community and it was important for researcher mobility to be protected in any scenario.

The Royal Society’s evidence-gathering project also considers the ways EU membership supports and impacts collaboration and mobility. While the report identifies a number of potentially beneficial EU support mechanisms, it also highlights that many UK collaborations with EU and non-EU countries do not depend on EU membership. They note that the data available and the complex reasons behind why researchers collaborate and move institutions makes quantifying the current impact of EU membership, and speculating about the impacts of leaving, challenging. However some statistics are suggestive of positive impacts; for example, they found that although the US remains the most frequent partner country for collaborations, UK–EU collaborations have been growing fastest, with a 17% increase in UK–Europe collaborative papers between 1981 and 2012.

Science policy advice and influence

In terms of policy for science, overall, the House of Lords Select Committee felt that the UK plays a “leading role” in EU policy development and decision-making processes. They concluded that the involvement of UK scientists in various EU forums helped to “ensure that the UK’s voice is clearly heard and that the EU remains aligned with the advancement of UK science, particularly by shaping the balance between funding awarded on the basis of research excellence and that awarded for capacity building.”

The UK’s EU membership also impacts its engagement with international science policy development and discussions. The Royal Society highlights human genome editing and biological and toxin weapons policy discussion as two examples where the UK has engaged with the wider international community, both independently and through membership of the EU.

Summary

This overview of science and the EU Referendum is by no means exhaustive; do take a closer look at the suggested sources and many other excellent blogs and resources on this topic.

Microbiology Society staff and members will be attending Parliamentary Links Day at the Houses of Parliament on the 28 June; this year’s theme is ‘Science after the Referendum’. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, an interesting debate awaits.

Paul Richards

Disclaimer: Given Charity Commission guidance, as well as the different views our members may hold, the Microbiology Society has opted not to take a position on the EU Referendum. The links and resources highlighted are provided for information and do not indicate the Society’s official views or support.

Image credit: Ruskpp/Thinkstock
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