The European Union has its issues, but a Brexit could spell problems for science.
Greece narrowly avoided being kicked out of the European Union’s single currency last year. Now Britain could exit the whole union voluntarily (a possibility dubbed ‘Brexit’). The grand EU project has not looked so shaky since the financial crash of 2008, which brought many of the 28 EU member states to their knees. Now, in the midst of a Europe-wide migration crisis, the United Kingdom is trying to renegotiate its EU membership. If concessions won this week do not convince the UK public, then Britain could vote to leave the EU by the end of 2017.
Many researchers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are aghast at this idea. As detailed in a news story this week, UK scientists pull in millions of euros of funding from EU research programmes and gain preferential access to major infrastructure projects. No one is really sure whether Britain leaving would jeopardize this, because no state has left the EU before.
British discussion of the relationship with Europe is coloured by decades of tabloid scorn and political opportunism. The first step to any sensible decision must be to separate the facts from the rhetorical fiction. So it is essential that debates over the role of the EU in science — such as the ongoing inquiry by the House of Lords science committee into the EU’s influence — offer a critical analysis of what science stands to lose.
It is certainly true that EU funding has sustained many a scientific career as national-government support has withered throughout the continent. Across leading British universities, one in every five employees comes from a non-UK EU member state. UK scientists ply their trade in universities across the EU in return. Indeed, for many scientists, the country that they work in is less important than the work that they do.
Opponents of a Brexit make a compelling case for what might be lost if UK researchers were locked out of EU systems and UK institutions had to jump through hoops to bring in talented staff. Among those who have come out to sing the praises of EU links are the academic umbrella group Universities UK, the elite-university lobbying organization the Russell Group, and the anti-Brexit group ‘Scientists for EU’.
They argue that cooperation in research shows Europe at its best. British citizens were as proud as any across the continent, for example, when the European Space Agency wowed the world last year by landing a spacecraft on a comet. And the CERN particle-physics laboratory is a model of trans-boundary science — quite literally, because its accelerators near Geneva straddle the border between France and Switzerland.
There have been complaints that debate might be stifled by the great and the good in science coming out wearing their institutional badges and arguing against a Brexit. But scientists — to their credit — generally do not shy away from speaking up. A dedicated group of pro-Brexit researchers is making its own case.
The group’s position has some merit, too. It would be wrong to pretend that the EU is without problems. Supporters of a Brexit cite rules on clinical trials as an example of EU regulations that have hindered the pursuit of knowledge. And the political gridlock on growing genetically modified crops in the EU has left agricultural scientists frustrated. Brussels bureaucracy has become a shorthand term for red tape, officialdom and delays.
On balance, it is the view of this journal that science, in Britain and elsewhere, would benefit from the United Kingdom remaining as a committed member of the European team. An exit decision would cause chaos and uncertainty, and could set back some projects significantly.
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Better together. Nature 530, 6 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/530006b