The United Kingdom on Thursday is taking a historic vote on whether to remain a part of the European Union or to exit the economic and political bloc in a scenario referred to as “Brexit”. The run-up to the referendum has been caustically divisive in the U.K., and polls have indicated a nearly even split among voters.
According to a report from the House of Lords and recent polls, a strong majority of the scientific community believes the U.K. should remain. Scientific American spoke to Lord Paul Drayson, PhD FREng, about why this is the case, and what effects leaving would have on U.K. research and on British technology industries. Drayson was Britain’s Minister of Science from 2008 to 2010 and is now CEO of London-based startup Drayson Technologies, which develops wireless energy devices and wireless sensor networks.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why is the scientific community so strongly opposed to Brexit?
I think there’s this almost philosophical component to it, which is that people who work in the science community grow up with the concept that through collaboration great scientific insights happen. And so the very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists. Science benefits from the way in which our scientists based here in the U.K. are able to freely collaborate with scientists in Europe, and there are so many examples of how the scientific community as a whole has benefitted from that interaction. And for some of the really big problems we’re trying to tackle in science, whether it requires big facilities or research across multiple regions, the fact that we are part of this wider community is clearly helpful. Whether that’s things like CERN or the Horizon 2020 projects—there are all sorts of examples of specific projects which have been facilitated through that natural collaboration which comes from being part of the European community.
Do you think that leaving would affect the U.K.’s ability to attract and retain top talent? Would scientists see this and go elsewhere?
I’m on the board of the council of Oxford University, and Oxford is very clear that its ability to maintain its position as a world-class university would be negatively affected by Brexit, because it would not be able to attract the very best talent in the way in which it has been able to do up till now. I’m also running a technology company in London, and we’re working in some areas of cutting-edge science around radio frequency antenna design, wireless energy, and machine learning software. Now, we’re a small company, forty people, but because we’re based in London, and because London is part of the E.U., it’s been possible for us to attract people from places like Romania, France, Spain, Portugal, who have come with PhDs in these subjects to join our team here and to make a major contribution. So not only would it affect our leading universities, but it would affect the technology businesses too. Here we are, it’s London technology week, we’re celebrating the powerhouse we have here in London now around technology companies. Brexit would be a real blow to the momentum that the London tech scene has developed.
The U.K. receives about 10 percent of its science funding from E.U. grants, but on the Brexit side it has been argued that those levels would not necessarily fall, as various legal arraignments could allow U.K. researchers to still receive E.U. grants. Couldn’t this work?
Having been the science minister who was responsible for negotiating these things, I know what it’s like to negotiate from the position of a country that’s inside the tent, and it’s different from the countries that are outside. It’s better to be inside. It gets at a pretty obvious point, which is that if you’re part of something, then your partners recognize that you have a voice in setting the agenda. If you’re not, then it’s fair and right for those parties to say, “I’m sorry, you’re not part of this. You may collaborate, but you’ll collaborate on our terms.” It’s not that you couldn’t negotiate, it wouldn’t mean that there would be no collaborative research projects, it’s just that the terms under which those research collaborations would be done, the percentage of the research that would come from the U.K., and therefore the quality of the science based here in the U.K., would go down.
Are there any particular areas of science or tech that would be disproportionately hurt?
As an example, take Aerospace technology, where Europe has got a vibrant and successful industry. Who is the competitor to Boeing? Well it’s Airbus. Why is Airbus competitive? Because you’ve got very clever people here in the U.K. who know how to design wings using composites. Now, to be able to undertake research into next-generation aerospace technology you have got to have an industrial base which is able to sustain very expensive and large facilities necessary to do that research. Part of the consequences of us being part of Europe, as the global airspace industry has consolidated, is that it has meant that Europe has done some intelligent identification of where the critical mass of expertise lies. For example, [the southwestern England city of] Bristol is a place which back in the 1940s had real expertise in the science of aerodynamics and wing designs, and that had led to the fact that they’re still a very successful part of the aerospace industry. If we were no longer part of Europe, that would have a pretty significant impact on the future direction of development at Airbus, and we would lose out. That’s just one industry. Also, I think people often talk about and complain about bureaucracy, but they don’t talk about regulations across Europe actually helping people live better and healthier lives. And having such a regulatory framework makes it so that small technology companies like my own find it much easier to develop products which, if they get approval, are approved across the whole of the European market and not just each member state. Therefore they can market their product efficiently, and that market is then open to them in a way which would not be the case if we were not a member. So you can see the whole innovation chain—from invention, discovery, research on one end, through to the commercialization of that research and bringing new products to market, therefor generating wealth, all of it would be negatively affected by a decision to withdraw. Yes, we could continue as a nation, but we would be diminished by leaving.