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11 June 2016

Debunking the Brexit myths

Four-fifths of scientists support staying in the EU. Here is why.

By paul nurse

Scientists are not known for their conformity, but there is one topic on which the great majority agree: being part of the EU is good for British science. A recent survey in the science journal Nature showed that 83 per cent of UK scientists want Britain to stay in the EU, a much higher proportion than in the general population.

Why is this the case? Permeability of ideas and people is crucially important to science, and it flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers, and are open to exchange and collaboration. The EU helps provide such an environment, and scientists value it. But some Brexit supporters seem to be confused in their comments about science and the EU, and I want to correct some of the myths that have arisen.

Myth: 1 It’s all about the funding

So far, the debate about the EU and science has focused mainly on funding. Over the past decade UK investment in science has shrunk while the EU has tripled its science budget, and the UK is one of the biggest beneficiaries, getting much more out than we put in. The €8.8bn in science funding we received in the six years to 2013 helped the country remain a global leader in the field despite our well-below-average levels of UK government funding.

Some have argued that, outside of the EU, the Treasury would set aside a big chunk of the savings from membership fees to replace that funding stream fully. This is wishful thinking, given that successive governments have let the UK languish well below the EU average in its research investment as a proportion of GDP.

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Being part of the EU is about much more than money. It’s about being part of a science colossus. Being inside the EU gives us easy access to all the things that make the EU an international research titan: a large, skilled, mobile research workforce; research infrastructure; extensive, multi-country collaborations. More than that, it gives us powerful influence over them. The UK is steering a very big ship, much bigger than one we could build alone.

Myth 2: Leaving would cut bureaucracy

I once showed government officials the pile of UK immigration paperwork that needed to be consulted to recruit scientists from outside the EU. It was a daunting two inches thick. The UK can be very bureaucratic. At the Francis Crick Institute, where I work, we recruit the best in the world, wherever they come from, so we plough through the paperwork. But it costs us effort that would otherwise be spent on biomedical science. In contrast, when we recruit scientists from within the EU, the bureaucracy is much less.

Being part of a single framework reduces administration in other ways, too. Thanks to regulatory harmonisation through the European Medicines Agency, the pharmaceutical industry can bring new medicines to patients more quickly.

Being in a larger union also increases our agility. To respond quickly to the latest scientific developments, you need a diverse base of people, specialisms and facilities – and such a variety of capabilities is much more likely to be present within a bigger grouping. If one particular area of science suddenly takes off and we do not have much in the way of infrastructure or expertise in that field within the UK, we can react faster by drawing on talent and facilities in another EU country – ensuring that British science is not left behind.

So why is there a perception in some quarters that EU bureaucracy has been stifling to UK science? What crops up most often is the EU Clinical Trials Directive, which sets regulations around how you can conduct medical trials with patients. This directive was overly cumbersome and is currently being replaced with a more effective regime. Though change has been too long coming, the EU has listened to its scientists. “Ah,” say the Brexiteers, “but if we were not in the EU, we would never have had to worry about the Clinical Trials Directive in the first place.” Wrong. For large-scale clinical trials, you need multinational populations. For these, you are likely to be subject to the EU regulations anyway, and outside the EU you would have had no say in them.

Myth 3: We could access all the important things from outside

Those arguing for Brexit do not deny the range of benefits from being in the EU that scientists cite – workforce mobility, critical mass, funding. They do not even try. Instead, their argument goes like this: “Yes, these are all crucial to science. But we could have them from outside the EU.”

You do not need to be a member of the EU to participate in the EU science programme. What scientists worry about is the level of participation. Only full EU membership guarantees access to all parts of the programme and lets you drive policy.

Crucially, a decent level of access from outside the EU would almost certainly be conditional on embracing the very principles those supporting Brexit wish to reject, such as freedom of movement. While small countries outside Europe (say, Georgia and Tunisia) can negotiate full “associate membership” without agreeing freedom of movement, Switzerland was demoted from full
to partial access after a referendum in 2014 voted for stricter immigration controls.

Swiss participation in EU science projects then fell by 40 per cent. Painful negotiation won only partial access to funding; even that is for just two and a half years, and is provisional on finding a way to maintain freedom of movement principles despite the popular vote. To say that my colleagues in Switzerland are alarmed is an understatement. I was there recently and they think Britain is crazy to consider leaving.
A renegotiated level of participation would revolve around the very things the Leave campaign wants us to leave behind: willingness to make a net contribution, adherence to EU standards, and retention of freedom of movement. Most importantly, whatever we negotiated, we would lose our say in making policy.

The “best of both worlds” argument is intellectually lazy and deliberately overlooks a clear precedent. Its naive claims about how EU negotiations would conclude is unsupported by any science policy expert. Every single UK minister for universities and science in the past 25 years has said UK science would be damaged by leaving the EU.

I can already hear the Brexiteers accusing me of “scaremongering”, an accusation that many people use when they run out of arguments. I am not scaremongering. Brexit would not halt British science – but make no mistake, it would be significantly damaged.

Myth 4: There is major debate among scientists about this

The media rightly like to present debate and offer balance. So when one person says publicly that leaving the EU would be bad for science, they will look for someone to present the counter-argument. That may have created a false impression about the level of disagreement on this issue. Of course there is debate, but the great majority of scientists agree, from Stephen Hawking, to Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, to the chief executives of Eli Lilly and GSK, to the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, to the CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association, to the 150 fellows of the Royal Society at Cambridge who signed a letter calling Brexit a “disaster”. In contrast, hardly any accomplished scientists are arguing that leaving the EU would be good for UK science.

Myth 5: This is a sector-specific issue

These things matter not just to scientists. Science drives growth, innovation, well-being and prosperity in our country. When we are debating whether Brexit would be good or bad for health and wealth, science should be front and centre.
Superb science is one of the UK’s biggest assets: that makes all of our lives better. Over recent decades, the EU has played a critical role in helping UK science.

Scientific advancement translates to human advancement. What is good for science is good for the UK, and what is good for UK science is staying in the European Union.

Sir Paul Nurse is a former president of the Royal Society and is the chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute.


This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe