UK will go to the polls to vote on membership of the European Union on the 23rd of June 2016. The referendum poses the question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” If the majority vote the second option, things will change.
The so-called Brexit is not just a geopolitical issue: it’s about people, money and power. And so it impacts science, whose world is made up of people, needs a lot of finance and brings a sort of “soft” power. The political scientist Joseph Nye of Harvard University defines “soft” as the ability to influence and coax with culture, values and policies.
The "soft" power
Politics beyond science
While theoretically it will still be possible for the UK to join European research programmes, non-member countries benefit from lesser funding.
In a context like this, everybody is lobbying: politicians, banks, research institutions, universities. And so do scientists. Dr Mike Galsworthy founded a group called Scientists for EU with this purpose.
The UK hosts the headquarters of six pan-European research facilities. These are:
- High Power Laser Energy research Facility (HiPER) – Harwell, Oxfordshire
- ELIXIR (European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information) – Hinxton, Cambridgeshire
- Integrated Structural Biology Infrastructure (INSTRUCT) – Oxford
- Infrastructure for Systems Biology-Europe (ISBE) – Imperial College, London
- Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – Manchester, Jodrell Bank Observatory
- European Social Survey (ESS ERIC) – London, City University
Those are the instruments through which the UK has led some of the main research projects and is leading the world in soft power. Would such an influence continue to spread outside Europe? If you buy in as a partner country, you can’t have leadership on projects. The United States use this method, but they have another kind of economy.
The USA also have an ocean in between. Many companies and research institutions currently based in the UK, instead, may decide to change their country. The head of the Swedish pharmaceutical association would like the European Medicines Agency, currently located in Canary Wharf (London), to move to Stockholm.
This flow is not going to happen according to Dr Lee Upcraft, who is a physicist and was a UKIP candidate in 2015. With Scientists for Britain, he is campaigning to leave the EU.
Dr Upcraft doesn’t see any reason to think that scientific research would be adversely affected by Brexit anyway.
In 2014 the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) had a higher number of scientific publications per million inhabitants than the EU had. It is also true that Switzerland was ranked better than the UK.
But in the EU there was still the highest number of total scientific publication (432,195) and 13 out of the top 25 countries are in Europe. There could be a linkage between scientific excellence and membership of the Union.
What’s surprising is that those who want to leave do not hold any plan for the future either. They are convinced the UK will endure, given they have some of the best universities in Europe. But it’s a vicious circle: universities are good because of the people working there.
The quintessential European
People beyond science
Constantin Coussios was born in Greece, grew up in Brussels and has lived in seven different countries. He became a British citizen five months ago.
What’s funny, he says, is that he started the process being slightly concerned that Greece may leave the European Union and he completed it being more concerned that Britain may leave the EU.
In fact the best definition of his nationality is European. And so he feels that distinctively, rather than Greek or British.
Because both his parents started working for the European Commission in Brussels shortly after Greece joined the Union in 1982, Constantin left Greece when he was 6 years old and followed them to the heart of Europe. He studied first at a Belgian School and then at the European School.
At the age of 17 he moved to the UK to read engineering at Cambridge, enabled by the combination of a scholarship he received and the fact that at that time there were no undergraduate University fees for either British or other European students. From there he spent a long time studying and working around the world, but eventually came back.
Constantin is now the Statutory Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Oxford.
He is conducting a project he has been working on since the time of his masters, essentially for more half his life. He founded with Prof. Peter Friend a company called OrganOx Ltd to develop a new machine that preserves organs prior to transplantation. This device was used to carry out some 20 per cent of the UK’s liver transplants in 2015 and could double the number of livers available for transplantation within current donation practices.
More recently, Constantin’s research has focused on the use of therapeutic ultrasounds to deliver cancer drugs better and deeper into tumours, improving efficacy of drugs. This resulted in a first-in-man clinical trial of ultrasound-mediated drug delivery and the creation of OxSonics Ltd in 2014. The hospital just in front of his office uses this technique: it’s going to change the paradigm of how we do oncology.
Between them, OrganOx and OxSonics today permanently employ over 30 University graduates, of whom over half hold doctoral degrees.
All these projects are carried out by an international team.
Constantin was able to stay in the UK and compete for PhD scholarships alongside any other British or European without any differentiation. He truly believes that at any level, either undergraduate or postgraduate, the ability to recruit the most brilliant minds is of a huge importance.
UK universities were employing 31,635 people from other European countries during the academic year 2014/15.
The infographic below shows the percentage in some of the main universities in the UK.
Foreigner researchers came mostly from Germany, Italy, USA, China, Ireland, Greece, France, Spain and India. The ratio of the number of researchers working in the UK to national population is much higher for European countries.
The data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that 124,580 students (post and undergraduate combined) with an European country domicile were enrolled at the UK’s 163 universities in the academic year 2014/15. They are people like Constantin Cussios and they may be eventually discouraged to move to the UK.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), average tuition fees at public institutions in the UK are higher than the fees paid in any other developed countries.
Fearing the uncontrolled immigration, the argument is in fact mainly about freedom of movement. The Leave campaign decided in May to adapt their tactic by focusing all their effort on migration issues.
According to the European Research Ranking, the best places to do research in the UK are universities. These are UCL, Cambridge, Oxford and the Imperial College. It is a pretty uncommon trait compared to other European countries: the top ranked is the Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique in France, followed by other non academical institutions in Germany and Italy.
However, the existence of a partnership between the European Union and the UK concerns British people too.
Take Heather Campbell. She’s an astronomer.
Heather decided to move to Cambridge when she first heard about the Gaia satellite. There she started working at the Institute of Astronomy with Professor Gerry Gilmore.
Gaia is the European Space Agency satellite launched in 2013. It is a fully European mission designed to publish the largest stellar catalogue ever made. They are mapping the Milky Way galaxy looking at the billion brighter stars many, many times, trying to get very accurate data. Because some supernovae are very bright, they can be used to measure distances in the universe and to discover how fast it is expanding.
But Heather’s interest in astronomy goes as far back as her childhood.
Now everybody, including school children, can give their contribution to this open study. From lots of different telescopes astronomers and amateurs collect information and share them with each other.
In this particular project Heather is working, named Gaia14aae, 80 people are involved. It is a huge undertaking, which couldn’t be doable with just one country’s effort. The Gaia project has already brought £80 million of industrial contracts to UK industry and science institutes.
Money beyond science
Speaking of which, a UK exit would mean also a change in the way funds are allocated. Becoming a non-member country, the UK would have the same status as Norway, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel... But each of those nations has a particular agreement when it comes to participation in European programmes.
As Law Professor Mads Adenas of the University of Oslo pointed out, everything is still to be decided and any allegation about the economical consequences of Brexit is actually just hypothetical.
In terms of funds dedicated to research, the UK is one of the largest both as a donor and beneficiary, of the European budget.
The discussion arises because public investment in research and innovation has been suffering since 2009. So there’s a belief this is a better scenario, with more money saved which can be invested directly.
But, considering just the latest figures released by the Government, a UK exit would mean a loss of funding.
It’s not technically correct to refer to how much the UK contributes specifically to the research budget, as the overall budget contribution is received centrally, not separated by policy area. However, the UK contributes 12% of all EU funding yet receives about 15% of research funding, making it the second largest beneficiaries of EU science programmes behind Germany. That means there is a difference of €2 billion.
European research grants are distributed among complex programmes that are planned years in advance.
The previous EU funding round known as Seventh Framework Programme awarded €6.9 billion out of 55.9 to the UK, 71% of which went to universities. In 2009/10 UK universities received £376 million from EU government bodies. By 2014/15, this figure had risen to £725 million.
Within the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions for promoting science the UK was the top performer among participating countries: between 2007 and 2013, 3,454 UK-based researchers went to work overseas and 8,120 overseas researchers came to work in UK organizations with that support.
Horizon 2020 is the EU current funding scheme, the biggest ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020). Looking at the distribution of Horizon 2020 funding before the 1st of December 2015, organisations based in Germany have received the largest amount of EU funds (20.69%), followed by those in the UK (15.90%).
Research Councils, a non-departmental Government body that co-ordinates research in different fields, got nearly €60 million through Horizon2020.
Ultimately, is living in a member state of the European Union compulsory to get your project funded? No. According to the European Project Manager Valentina Olivieri however, it is often an advantage.
Money for scientific research is distributed like a trade, in which European countries tend to benefit more than non-member states from funding.
The USA participated in a few more than 1% of signed grant agreements within Horizon 2020. Switzerland 2%.
There must be a reason.
The Enlightenment under threat
With consequences hard to predict, British scientists as well as all their countrymen are going to vote with no idea of what could be their place in the world after the 23rd of June.
The constant effort of political negotiations harmed Switzerland, relegating it to “third country” status in terms of EU funding.
However things might go, its case demonstrates that international collaboration will be at least partially lost. No Swiss researchers have been fired so far and funds expected through old agreements are still arriving, but Brussels has cancelled a new one for Horizon2020.
The scientific revolution that preceded the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century took place in a Continent where people were able to consult one another thanks to the printing press. Since then, all developments have happened through communication and peer review.
Leading scientist in Astronomy at Cambridge University Dr Gerry Gilmore fears that his job and those of his colleagues will disappear. Why? Because indirectly much of the EU funding is subcontracted to industry in the UK. But what scares him the most is that they will lose the opportunity to work together with European partners. Somehow, the referendum looming over the UK is threatening the spirit of science itself.