Why Scientists Are So Worried about Brexit

Passions are running high ahead of this Thursday’s vote on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union, with the “Brexit” campaign issuing overwrought warnings of five million Turks poised to invade, while the “Bremain” camp—including the government—warns of economic disaster if the country leaves.

It’s just the kind of mudslinging battle that calm, rational scientists normally avoid.

But the British research community sees Brexit as a serious threat to funding and innovation, so it hasn’t stood silently on the sidelines. Polls say 93 percent of British scientists oppose Brexit. Many have spoken out: in March all 159 Fellows of the Royal Society at the University of Cambridge called the move “a disaster for British science,” mainly because it would stop young scientists from migrating freely within Europe. A report by the House of Lords reported in April that “the overwhelming balance of opinion from the UK science community” opposed Brexit.

Why? Partly because the EU funds a lot of science and technology research for its member countries, with 74.8 billion euros budgeted from 2014 to 2020. Brexiters say British taxpayers should simply keep their contribution and spend it at home.

They’d take a serious loss if they did. Britain punches above its weight in research, generating 16 percent of top-impact papers worldwide, so its grant applications are well received in Brussels. Between 2007 and 2013, it paid 5.4 billion euros into the EU research budget but got 8.8 billion euros back in grants.

British labs depend on that for a quarter of public research funds, a share that has increased in recent years. A cut in that funding after Brexit could drag down every field in which British research is prominent—which is most of them.

“It’s not just funding,” says Mike Galsworthy, a health-care researcher at University College London who launched the social-media campaign Scientists for EU. “EU support catalyzes international collaboration.” The EU funds research partly to boost European integration: for most programs you need collaborators in other EU countries to get a grant. This isn’t a bad thing, as collaborative work tends to mean more and higher-impact publications.

Brexiters argue that Britain can continue to participate in EU research from outside, under an “association agreement.” Several non-EU countries, like Norway and Tunisia, do that. Would it work for a major research nation?

Ask the Swiss. They are not in the EU, but in 2004 they allowed free movement of people to and from the EU, partly to qualify for EU research programs. In 2014, under the same anti-immigration pressure that pushed Britain to the Brexit vote, 50.3 percent of Swiss voted to repeal that. At the time, no one mentioned how this might affect science.

But Swiss students were summarily dropped from the EU’s Erasmus University exchange program, which is much used by young scientists. Swiss labs are major participants in EU science—one leads its flagship Human Brain Project—and the research ministry stepped in to rescue work stranded as EU funding was abruptly withdrawn. Brussels agreed to give the Swiss temporary “partial association,” with access to some programs mainly for basic research.

That will end in February, however, and the EU insists that for full association, Switzerland, like Norway, must agree to the free movement of people—putting the Swiss back where they started. Without full association, it will have to pay its own way to participate in EU research projects.

“There is no reason to think the U.K. would do any better,” says Athene Donald of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the European Research Council. To get an association agreement and EU research funds, Britain would have to agree to free movement of people from the EU, the very thing most Brexiters object to most.

And then the EU-funded science would cost more. Association countries pay into the EU research budget and then compete for joint projects. This takes more admin than simply competing as a dues-paying member, and the country must pay extra for that, making the science some 20 percent more expensive, researchers estimate. Britain would also lose its right, as an EU member, to help decide how the money is spent.

The economic impact of losing access to EU-funded science has not been lost on the Swiss. Polls in May found that now only 21 percent think free movement is a bad thing. Campaigners are organizing another referendum.

Karlheinz Meier, of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, runs the neuromorphic-computing platform for the Human Brain Project, based in Heidelberg—and in Manchester, England. If Brexit happens, he expects Britain to find some way to keep participating. “They won’t destroy their research collaboration with Europe,” he says. “It would be crazy.”

But Britain may not have much choice. British chancellor George Osborne said last week that he would have to slash public spending to pay for the costs of Brexit, estimated to total $100 billion by 2020. That, he says, would include hitherto untouchable budgets for health care. Science seems likely to be even more vulnerable to cuts.

High-tech British companies, including Rolls-Royce and BT, have come out against Brexit, as has Coadec, a confederation of small digital startups. All need the single market and common regulations to cut costs, plus free movement—especially for programmers.

Other RD players made their views clear at hearings in the House of Lords. The EU runs the world’s most advanced magnetic-containment fusion experiments. The JET reactor, in England, has given British physicists and engineers a unique edge in the technology, the U.K. Atomic Energy Agency told the Lords. If the next phase in this program, the ITER reactor in France, ever delivers fusion power, it will take longer without the Brits. We would all lose.

The EU’s 3.3-billion-euro Innovative Medicines Initiative is not now open to the Swiss. The pharmaceutical industry, the largest business investor in British RD, told the Lords it fears Brexit will mean British labs will follow. Britain is a major player in pharmaceutical research; that means slower progress towards badly needed new drugs.

Again, we all lose.

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