Would Brexit Hurt British Science?

Stephen Hawking and the Royal Society’s scientists have claimed that leaving the EU would be a “disaster” for UK. They should stick to black holes rather than supranational politics.


The London headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, the largest pharmaceutical company in the UK. (Photo: www.gsk.com)

The London headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, the largest pharmaceutical company in the UK. (Photo: www.gsk.com)

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 UK 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 UK 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 programme, the EU allocates a certain amount of its annual budget (about €80 billion) to organisations that promote innovation. The UK receives a truly minuscule proportion of this money: about €240 million euro p.a. (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 3% of British research and development funding comes from EU programmes. Any loss of funding suffered by UK science after a Brexit would be very small.

Ultimately however, there need not be any loss of funding at all. The UK 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 programmes 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 UK, 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 UK. On the other hand, they admit that many foreign scientists in the UK 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 UK.

Professor Stephen Hawking, an expert on black holes but perhaps not on supranational politics. (Photo: Independent)

Professor Stephen Hawking, an expert on black holes but perhaps not on supranational politics. (Photo: Independent)

As a member of the European Union, Britain takes part in many Europe-wide scientific research programmes. 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 programmes. 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 organisations aren’t even formally affiliated with the EU.

Even membership of the single market is not a prerequisite for a flourishing scientific industry. 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 UK, 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.

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Adam Fitchett
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Adam Fitchett

Editor-in-Chief at Filibuster
Adam Fitchett, our Editor-in-Chief, is a 21-year-old student of neuroscience from Worthing in West Sussex. He describes himself as "arguably libertarian" because he believes that increasing personal freedom and decentralising power are prerequisites for human fluorishing. In his spare time, he enjoys badminton, industrial music and improv comedy.
Adam Fitchett
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Latest posts by Adam Fitchett (see all)

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    Why would people care more about political principles than money on science? The money they earn has an opportunity to change our perception of the universe, change the way we treat disease, change the way the world works. Science is an international community on its own, it doesn’t need the EU but the opportunities to take part in key projects that comes along with membership is worth more than any limited amount of additional sovereignty we would gain from leaving the EU. Your argument for leaving has nothing to do with science and it’s a real shame you’ve tried to disguise your personal agenda with an article that only looks at a small portion of the real picture in terms of science. The scientists speaking out on the issue know far more about this issue than you do so I suggest you focus on other issues as you try to push through a leave vote.

    • Adam Fitchett

      Thank you for reading and responding,

      The scientists speaking out on the issue, as I have detailed extensively in the article, are either ignorant of the evidence or choose to ignore it, since it does not even come close to justifying their claims.

      Everything you’ve said here has been addressed in the article. In brief (1) there is no necessity for loss of funding, and even if we did lose funding it wouldn’t be very much (2) co-operation will occur without political union and may even be better without it

      Should we care more about money than political principles? Well, that’s for your conscience to decide. I’d rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. More importantly, I’d rather we had everything: freedom, knowledge, power and abundance. We can have everything, but only if we leave the EU.

      My personal agenda is not disguised. I can’t include everything in one article or it would be 50,000 words long. I have done what everyone does, which is to write one article on one topic from a certain perspective. Feel free to criticise my arguments (and provide counter evidence), but criticising the format of the article itself seems a little silly.

      The EU debate has everything to do with everything, including science. I wrote this article in response to the Royal Society. They are the ones who started making unsubstantiated (and unscientific) claims about the effect of a leave vote on science. I’m merely responding. If you don’t want science to be politicised and used for anyone’s agenda, have a go at them, not me.

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