The charged question of whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union — to be put to a national referendum on 23 June — splits the general population almost evenly. But most scientists want the country to stay in, suggests a Nature poll of nearly 2,000 researchers living in the EU, both inside and outside the United Kingdom (see ‘Scientists speak on a Brexit’).
Most of the polled researchers also think that a British exit, or ‘Brexit’, would harm science in the nation and in the EU at large. Responses to the poll were solicited by e-mail from people who had registered their addresses with Nature; through a pop-up on its website; and on social media.
Of the 907 researchers working in the United Kingdom who were polled, 83% said that they wanted Britain to stay in, whereas 12% were in favour of a Brexit. When only the 666 UK researchers who plan to vote in the referendum were included, these figures shifted slightly — to 80% and 14%. Sentiment was similar among polled researchers living outside the United Kingdom but inside the EU, who don’t have a vote. Of these 954 individuals, 77% wanted Britain to stay in the EU, whereas 17% wanted it to leave. These proportions differ markedly from those of the general UK population, which is divided roughly evenly between the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps, according to other surveys. Of those who intend to vote in the referendum, 78% said that a Brexit would harm UK science; 9% said that it would be beneficial. Both UK and EU researchers thought that an exit would harm the rest of EU science although to a lesser extent than it harmed UK science.
Political debate concerning a Brexit has revolved heavily around immigration, the economy and infighting in the country’s ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron supports the ‘in’ camp, but several high-profile members of his party want out.
However, science is making inroads into the discussion. “Research and innovation are actually coming more into the debate,” says Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of the advocacy group Scientists for EU. “It’s going to get more heated around that issue.” On 10 March, The Times newspaper published a letter extolling the benefits to science of EU membership, signed by more than 150 researchers at the University of Cambridge who are fellows of the Royal Society. “I think in the sciences, it’s clearly overwhelmingly in favour of staying in,” says lead signatory Alan Fersht, a Cambridge chemist.
Scientists in favour of staying note that UK universities receive around 16% of their total research funding directly from the EU, and that membership allows researchers to move freely between member states and to work with no restrictions (see Nature 530, 15, 2016).
But pro-Brexit Conservative justice minister Michael Gove has suggested that money that the United Kingdom currently gives to the EU as part of its membership could be invested in science if the country leaves. And cancer researcher Angus Dalgleish — who is campaigning for the United Kingdom to leave the union — complained about EU regulation of science on the television programme Newsnight on 10 March. The campaign to leave is making science a major point of its activities, says Jamie Martin, an advocate for the leave side and a former special adviser to Gove.
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