A Call for British Scientists to Oppose Brexit

(October 23rd, 2015) At the beginning of this month, Mike Galsworthy and Rob Davidson officially launched their grassroots campaign 'Scientists for EU'. The two researchers want to mobilise the scientific community to advocate the UK's continued EU membership.

With a plebiscite on the British EU membership looming, scientists and research institutions worry about the future of their international and collaborative working environment should the referendum result in the UK leaving the EU. According to Galsworthy, Programme Director of ‘Scientists for EU’, a Brexit threatens the EU science programme and the UK's involvement. It could obstruct the free movement of talent in Europe and would reduce the UK's influence on European research and innovation policy.
Greater impact by multinational research

More than half of the UK's research publications are now international and the EU programme substantially supports multinational research, thus complementing national funding. Galsworthy considers the EU's science programme as the appropriate means to tackle the international challenges of health, energy and the environment, and to promote an innovative knowledge economy. Without this support, complex collaborations across nations would be burdened with excessive bureaucracy. "Imagine if you wanted to team up with six other labs around Europe for a big piece of work and there was no EU science programme. Who would fund it?" he remarked. “We also know that international collaborations produce greater scientific impact.” The scientist and consultant fears that in the event of a Brexit, the UK would have to buy back into the EU science programme, with loss of access and influence like Switzerland. "The UK is the largest player now on the EU programme - and it would be hard to argue that it should stay in that role were it to leave the EU." One of the campaign's 7,000 Facebook followers noted that Brexit in all aspects would promote insularity, counter to scientific values.

‘Scientists for EU’ have assembled a cross-party advisory board, which comprises leading national figures in research and innovation policy as well as key representatives of academic and business pro-EU campaigns. Moreover, the initiative is networking with the other pro-EU campaigns, such as 'European Movement' and 'Universities UK'.

Fears of collateral damage to science

"Those that want to leave the EU, like to say that universities and scientists are fear-mongering when we discuss consequences of leaving. But we have to face up to some very real threats. Our largest concern is that the campaign to leave the EU is largely driven by an anti-immigration sentiment. If we did vote to leave, then the government would be under huge pressure to restrict immigration. That would make us ineligible for major parts of the EU science programme," Galsworthy said. Addressing the question of whether there were any research benefits to leaving the EU, he added: "Some say certain EU laws are restrictive of science but these kinds of laws are always changing to keep up with progress. I don’t see how that would free us up in any real way if we left the EU. Would our own population be less wary of GMOs, pesticides or sharing health data than the broader EU citizenry? I doubt it."

To attract supporters, 'Scientists for EU' are also present on Twitter, YouTube and Google+. The campaign is asking its followers to give their views on the question 'Would Brexit damage British universities, science and research?' on the website of the newspaper 'The Guardian'. A postdoc in a biochemistry lab highlighted the loss of expertise, the disruption of collaborative work and the weakening of networks should the UK leave the EU. A university employee observed that the EU supported collaborations of global importance and the recruitment of European top quality teams. Another reader mentioned that European students were less likely to join universities in the UK, should they be obliged to pay overseas fees. One anti-EU comment considered increased, democratically controlled, national R&D funding a priority.

EU funding promotes exchange of staff and students

'Scientists for EU' work closely with 'Universities UK' who launched ‘Universities for Europe’ to promote the value of EU membership for the higher education sector. In the 'Universities UK blog', Senior Policy Officer Lucy Shackleton discussed, why the UK's scientific community strongly benefits from close ties to the EU: under the last EU research funding programme, the UK received 15.5 per cent of the funding allocated, almost €7 billion. Fifteen per cent of the UK academic workforce come from other European countries and, in 2014, EU academics obtained over half of the ERC's prestigious Consolidator grants awarded to staff at UK universities. In addition, over 3,500 researchers have been supported by the EU to develop their skills abroad. Over 200,000 UK students and 20,000 UK university staff have spent time abroad through the Erasmus exchange programme, thus enhancing their employability.

Whether the votes of the comparatively small scientific community can tip the scales in a referendum on the Brexit remains to be seen. The hope of the campaign is that it can convince the broader public that the UK’s future innovation economy and quality of life hinges on science, with UK science capacity in turn hinging on the EU. 'Scientists for EU' are accepting donations and selling badges, T-shirts, mugs and teddy bears with campaign logos via their website. "Now that we have grown our movement, set up our structure and started to make real impact on the referendum debate, we need financial backing. If there’s anyone out there who can help on this front, please do come forward," Galsworthy implores.

Bettina Dupont

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Linnaea Mallette

Last Changes: 12.03.2015