Science Part 1 (2019 words)

Thank you for visiting the EUandEurope blog where we examine issues related to the upcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU.

In this post I will be taking an introductory look at the current attitudes to the EU in the British Science community.  An example of this are statements such as the following:

“Dr Galsworthy is highly respected Cambridge scientist representing widely held views in science” (emphasis mine).

Science in Europe is indeed a great success.

Science projects in FP7
Number of Grants received during FP7 Research and Innovation program 2007-2013.

However, if we want to address the need for the EU specifically to run the process then we need to answer the question:

Is political union, as currently practiced in the EU required to achieve the necessary levels of collaboration and funding for Science?

This raises interesting points about the Remain camp and the Science community in particular.  I’ve long had an issue with the UK science community continuously making a claim that EU is necessary for the UK to maintain its pre-eminent position in the world of science with no discussion of alternatives being brooked.

This claim is questionable not least because the vast majority of science ever practiced on earth has gone ahead without the participants’ countries being engaged in political union. That they have done so extremely successfully is unarguable.

A huge amount of science in the current world still goes ahead outside of political union.

There are many examples of this from recent history and thus it cannot be said to be unrepresentative of the modern world, we are not just referring to Pasteur and Babbage et al’.

Non EU examples

The race to decide the human genome took place not only outside of political union but also in a competitive environment. We can question the commercial capture of this information and the impact of the competitive element but not that the process was completed without the direct involvement of the EU.

The obvious CERN. Based in Switzerland, not in the EU.

European Space Agency. Although this sounds like an EU agency, it is in fact entirely separate and independent of the EU. A scientists interjected into a Twitter thread to remind me of this recently.

Pro-EU science advocates often stress that although we would still access funding (even Israel can access funding under the EU science programs), there are other benefits such as collaboration and easy movement of Scientists across european borders.

Communicable Disease Control. I was discussing this on Twitter recently and a Scientist in infectious diseases interjected to make the point that in that particular field global collaboration is necessary, not specifically European. In this respect does free movement of EU citizens at the cost of more difficult movement of others, help or harm? It’s a bit of both of course, so why are so few scientists willing to espouse this viewpoint, except the odd one I have managed to make personal contact with who supports my claims directly?

Funding

Firstly, let’s dispel a myth: that the UK receives substantial funding from the EU toward science.  It doesn’t, as we shall see.

However, you wouldn’t know it from legacy media articles such as this article in the Guardian containing categorical statements such as:

“The pattern is clear. The EU directly pays for much UK research and innovation; and because Britain is scientifically outstanding, there is a net financial as well as scientific gain”

When the overall sums involved are analysed, it transpires that in fact ‘EU funding’ contributes 3% to the total spend in the UK on research and innovation.

3% Yes, you read that correctly.

Scientists for Britain also produce the following handy graphic which puts things into perspective:

uk_rd_2007-2013

FP7 – EU 7th Framework Program 2007-2013

Also, considering the UK pays more into the EU than it receives back (indeed I would not expect it to be otherwise), not only does the UK net not ‘receive funds from the EU’, we lose an element of control over how the money is spent as it is allocated as deemed by the EU.

In terms of access to and control over availability of funds it seems that not all scientists are happy with the way the EU funds are accessed and how they are allocated anyway.

Finally on the funding see this, again on the Scientists For Britain website:

The UK Allocation of Science and Research Funding 2015/16 document from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) revealed that its overall investment in UK science and research would be £5.8bn for the Financial Year 2015/16. By contrast, the European Research Council (ERC), the organisation that funds projects done through EU science networks, has a budget for 2016 of £1.3bn; and that is to fund all 28 EU countries and the 13 non-EU countries that currently participate in the ERC funding programmes.

Inbuilt Bias?

From my perspective, there also seems to be an inbuilt bias towards EU in the science community. If you take a look at the European Research Area website or the Horizon 2020 website, you can see what great programs are being run by the EU for science.  This no doubt supports scientists claim that ‘we need the EU for science collaboration/funding/access to skills.

My challenge is to have it shown that any specific mechanisms could not be continued without the political union aspects of the EU.

On access to skills for example, others are showing that it is not necessary:

“Indeed, the analysis shows that Australia, Canada and Australia, all of which have strict entry criteria, have a greater percentage of overseas researchers than either the UK, Germany or France”

While I respect scientists for what they do, I don’t believe many of them are looking into the EU question as deeply and more importantly, as broadly as those who have been studying it for years, analysing the effect it has on the UK and the world and working out how UK can not only survive but thrive out of political union.

This belief was reinforced by the following tweet:

@euandeuropeblog Leave camp try to dismiss overwhelming consensus as conspiracy & group think (ignoring their own little echo chamber)

A problem here is that the writer assumes:

A/ All Leave groups are the same

B/ That they are not knowledgeable in a wider sense.

However, here we identify an issue:

Scientists are busy people. They are busy doing science. Quite naturally they want to carry on doing that science without being disrupted. They know that currently they can do that by supporting the EU and hence try to convince others to support EU membership.

However, those scientists busy doing science have mostly not been busy studying the EU in a wider sense and they certainly haven’t been busy using their undoubtedly brilliant minds to study alternatives to the EU that meet their needs for funding, collaboration and organisation.

Alternative models

As I have stated, the EU currently does provide a deal of support for science and it would indeed be a problem if access was lost to the channels it provides for enhancing scientific research in the UK.  Other countries outside the EU have to find ways of collaborating and access funding via the EU while not being members, as the UK may find itself in coming years.

While not equivalent to the UK in terms of size and weight of scientific expertise, we can look at Norway as a country that is already in the position that UK might find itself.

Although Norway is not in the EU, their success in ‘European science’ seems encouraging according to this study completed for the Norway government in March 2012:

 

Despite the fact that Norwegian success rates are above average, studies and interviews point out that there is still room for improvement

Also:
The fact that Norway is an associated country allows it to be at the decision table where the contents of these work programmes are influenced.
Some drawbacks are identified which mirror the earlier linked Guardian article complaining at how funds are allocated and the administrative burden:
Critical views are mostly concerned with the large administrative burden attached to the Framework Programme and the need for simplification to attract more participants
In terms of the engagement model:
Norway’s EEA Treaty provides a stable relationship with the European community
and
From a public management point of view the Norwegian EEA agreement is much more efficient and clear cut than the bilateral agreements that Israel and Switzerland have in terms of the time it takes to draw u p the agreements and renew them

This last statement shows that a UK exit from the EU via the EEA may be a preferable model at least initially.

However, it should be noted that in a similar vein to the contribution of ‘EU funds’ to the overall UK research and education budget:

Although Norway contributes a substantial sum to the Framework Programme, and receives substantial funding to European projects, this remains a relatively small part of overall R&D expenditure in Norway. The 2009 evaluation report estimates this to be around 1.3%, and that it represents in the region of 5-7% of total external funding.
The report continues on to break down other available options for the model used to interact with EU science programs with pros and cons for each.  From their analysis, it is clear that a closer relationship with the EU is beneficial for science.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, UK being a big player in the science world, on leaving the EU we would negotiate access on a mutually beneficial basis that goes beyond that available to smaller countries such as Norway.  There are ways of treating UK as a pseudo EU member state for the purposes of continued access to EU science and retain our influence and the 3% funding uninterrupted.
Think the UK has nothing to offer the EU when it comes to Leave negotiations and we will just be left out in the cold, isolated, drifting off into the mid atlantic?
Check the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s own website where they make the following statement:
“Being a relatively small agency, ECDC relies on the expertise and infrastructures (e.g. microbiological laboratories) in the Member States”.  You can see that it is clear, the EU, in this respect is not self resourced and the Disease control effort is a joint enterprise among members of the program.
Ask yourself why that would stop if the UK left the EU. Of course, the answer is that it wouldn’t, public health is far too important and the impact would be on the whole of Europe, not just the UK.
Another part of the quid pro quo for access to science programs would be continued UK contributions to the EU, so that remaining EU member states were not left with a budget hole to fill.
This might prove unsatisfactory to many Brexit supporters who naively believe we are going to ‘build a hospital a week with the money saved’.  However, it is a more realistic view that most or initially even all of the current EU contributions that the UK makes would be used to ensure continuity for Science, farming, aid to poorer EU states etc. in the short to medium term.
This is the view of the Leave Alliance, who have put together a comprehensive plan to address many of the issues raised by the prospect of Brexit. You can read a short pamphlet or the full plan.

From the Author’s perspective, not only do I not want disruption for the UK from Brexit but I don’t wish it for the remaining EU states either.  Some ridiculous scare stories are being spread but a diplomatic solution minimising the impact for Europe as a whole is the most likely outcome.

The UK does not cease to be a crucial part of Europe solely because it ceases to be a member of the EU.

Thank you for reading.

In Science Part II, I will review some articles recieved in support of the conventional pro EU stance of the science community.

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