As a website dedicated to the sharing of scientific knowledge, research and factual information, writing a piece on politics is breaking new ground for Scienvy. It’s uncharted territory, and in truth a bit of a risk expressing a personal opinion on a subject as monumental as the imminent referendum. However, I feel as though factual information is something that has been severely lacking from both sides of the Brexit campaign in the past few months.
This isn’t going to be a piece focusing on scaremongering of impending economic crises, and won’t even mention the topic of immigration. This post will focus on how science works within the EU at the moment, and why from a scientific - and personal - standpoint it is essential to vote to remain on the 23rd of June.
EU Funding of Science
Let’s begin with how research within the EU is currently funded. At present, the UK pays it’s government decided budget for scientific research into the EU, and in turn is allowed to access a larger fund of money, held of course by the EU. The important part here, is that what we pay in and what we get out, aren't close to matching up.
Between 2007 and 2013, Britain pumped £4.3 billion into EU research projects, and received back nearly £7 billion in the same period. That’s a positive return of £2.7 billion, over 50% of what we initially paid in. This surplus equated to an additional £300 million of investment into British scientific research.
So what does this mean if the vote results in the UK leaving the EU?
Firstly, there is a significant discrepancy to the tune of nearly £3 billion in the budget. Secondly, our access to much larger EU research funds ceases to exist. It would therefore, become the role of UK government to allocate sufficient funds to maintain our position at the forefront of scientific research. Now, in a Tory government, already hinting at emergency budget cuts pending the Brexit, will scientific funds remain untouched? Or will they be absorbed in attempts to rectify the economical impacts of an anti-EU UK?
For many years, the scientific community have avoided cuts to their budget. The reasons for this are plentiful, but most importantly in terms of the referendum, is that science is inherently profitable, to the aforementioned amount.
Science also provides an invaluable service to society, the advancement of us as a species is almost entirely dependent on the fruition of scientific research.
That fruition is truly under threat from the Brexit.
Stronger Together, Smarter Together
Now, I said that I wasn’t going to mention immigration. I’m not. But I am going to comment on the free movement of scientists.
In scientific terms, the UK is at the forefront of research in many respects. However, to attribute this success to British scientists alone would not only be arrogant, but also a substantial lie. Allow me to explain.
Saying “I am a scientist” doesn’t mean an awful lot to someone that works in science. To some I’m a marine biologist, to others - I’m a marine biogeochemist. To marine biogeochemists, I work on the global cycling of a singular compound from a singular group of organisms.
Who works on all the other cycles? Who works on the other organisms?
My point, is that what may seem like one area of research is in fact immeasurably vast. When you think of each discipline, the sub disciplines and the extreme level of detail of each of those, you begin to see that to become an expert, requires almost absolute dedication to a singular topic.
Now do you think - as great as UK scientists are - that there are A) enough of us to become experts in enough fields to drive progress forward, B) that we are better than all other nations at becoming experts and C) that we want to work in a field that is directly supported by the UK going forward? If so, by all means vote leave. I for one do not share your confidence.
The fact of the matter is that science is too big to be tackled by one nation regardless of future limits on funding. The collaborations with other institutes that being a member of the EU provides are invaluable when it comes to progression. The ability to move freely between foreign institutes provides scientists with incomparable benefits. Gaining fresh skills, fresh perspectives and experience are all right of passage to becoming an expert in your field, and the same applies to non-British scientists. By closing our doors to the EU scientific community, we are turning our back on not only the progression of our home grown scientists, but depriving the EU of the expertise from scientists based abroad, and halting the progression of our science as a whole.
The EU is the world leader of scientific researchers. Fact. It’s an intellectual powerhouse, comprising 22% of all researchers globally - ahead of both the US and China. Our pool of talent equates to one third of global research outputs. People are an invaluable resource, one that we are saying that we can do without.
We are smarter together, and UK scientists realise this. In fact, we have moved from just 15% of our published papered being internationally published, to over 50% since 1981. Simply put, UK science would not be at the level it is today without international contributions and collaborations.
Again, to speak from a personal standpoint for a moment. I’m not a world leading scientist. I’m yet to publish any research from my PhD, yet alone some of national or global impact. But I would not be half the scientist that I am today without the influence of scientists originating from the EU. From a dissertation mentor from Italy - which led to my first ever publication - to an EU funded training program in Croatia last summer, to the international colleagues that I surround myself with on a daily basis at work. All of these factors contribute not only to scientific quality, but also the quality of life for scientists.
Young EU Scientists on an EU Funded Training Course.
I would lastly ask you this. I’m speaking from an environmental standpoint, but that is not the only kind of science. Cast your mind to medical research for a moment. With new people, come fresh exciting methods, it’s just one way in which diversity moves science forward. When it comes to developing new treatments, cutting edge drugs, do you want just one team doing this? Who only know how to do it one way? Diversity breeds success, and the EU breeds diversity. Influence on Policy With movement of people comes movement of information, and unfortunately for us if we vote leave, the ability to implement that information in broader scientific policy leaves also. There is a middle ground, in which upon leaving the EU the UK could adopt a Switzerland-esque standpoint, holding on to associated country status - further entitling us to EU funding. Associated country status does come at a substantial cost however, not being able to contribute to EU science policy. For a more detailed piece on the Switzerland proposition you can read this article.
Fisheries are just one area of EU policy that stands to be affected
EU science policy is a broad term, but to keep this brief, EU policies are in place to govern air quality, water quality, biodiversity and fisheries to name but a few. Do we really want to position ourselves where we can not influence the preservation of the European environment? With the imminent threat of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, should we really be taking a step back from our status as environmental influencers? Take a look at this video and then decide:
Trump. Imploring Britain to leave the EU, and doesn’t even know that windows are not gas tight.
To summarise this short plea, vote remain. Listen to the 5,500 scientists that have signed an open letter to remain. Listen to the 9 out of 10 academics telling you to remain.
Voting should be personal, it shouldn’t be dictated or swayed by the caliber of other people voting a different way. That's not democracy, it's blind following. But in this special case, I implore you to take a look.
Those who publicly back the remain campaign include the esteemed Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox.
Those who publicly back the Brexit include Donald Trump, who was seen in the above video stating that releasing harmful CFCs inside his house has no effect on the environment because his windows were closed. It includes Nigel Farage, who can be directly quoted questioning whether climate change is driven by CO2 emissions, who thinks that our small nation contributing 1.8% of global carbon dioxide is not a big deal.
Do you trust a non-EU UK to prioritise science and maintain our environment? Admittedly, this is a generalisation, not all Brexiters share the same climatic views, but the fact of the matter is that our ability to conduct climate changing science, and influence wider climate policy are very much under threat in a non-EU UK.
The EU referendum is the vote of our generation. The future of science in the UK is just one aspect of many that this vote will define. I urge you to vote, but I urge you to vote with your head. Not on poorly established preconceptions. Not on media statements that crumble when you really look into the facts.
Vote sensible. Vote smart. Vote science.