In the midst of a European-wide immigration crisis, the UK tried to negotiate its EU membership, and the result was a withdrawal from its position. Almost two months have passed since Britain was self-voted out of the European Union, a decision that has caused an upheaval of worry and division throughout British society. Although the majority of Britain can now let out a sigh of relief at the reassurance that immigration numbers will decrease from one million every three years to tens of thousands annually, how will our withdrawal from the EU affect science?
When it comes to science, there is often an explanation, defined by an equation or applied theory; when it comes to politics, this does not hold true and when you bring the two together, it creates uncertainty. No state has ever left the EU before and so it is unclear what the future holds for UK scientific research, as whether our role in European organisations and projects will be jeopardised.
It is not only EU funding that we rely on heavily when it comes to scientific research, but also collaborations and jobs; scientists pull in millions of euros from EU research projects. Our position in the European Union currently allows us to gain preferential access to major infrastructure projects and bring in talented staff from other European countries. Across leading British universities, one in five employees originates from non-UK EU member states and UK universities also currently gain an extra fifteen percent of their government investment from the EU.
It was also reported that the UK contributed nearly £4.3bn for EU research projects from 2007 to 2013, but received almost £7bn back over the same period, allowing £2.7bn excess which was equivalent to more than £300m in research funds each year. However, once Britain has negotiated its withdrawal from the EU, it will lose its seat in the European commission, as well as its say in legal frameworks and on how money is spent and distributed to benefit UK researchers in EU organisations.
The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Space Energy (ESA) are two organisations that rely on EU legislation for their day to day operation. ESA’s headquarters are in Paris, with other research and training centres based in Madrid, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. The same applies for CERN: the main facility is located on the French-Swiss border, some experiments are carried out in Italy and the data centre is located in Budapest, Hungary. Such operations would be inconceivable without freedom of movement around the EU countries. The benefits of CERN within the EU are not restricted to freedom of movement; Marie Curie fellowships, for example, allow world-leading post graduate researchers to carry out fundamental research at the world’s largest particle physics facility.
Another benefit to CERN is the horizon 2020 funding programme which all of the EU’s state members are a part of. Horizon is an ambitious organisation, which will offer up to €80bn to its member organisations between 2014 and 2020. It may be worth noting that such collaborations and investments are not found elsewhere in the world on such a scale. The EU lays out the framework and support required for such huge and successful collaborations to occur. The UK may still be able to contribute to the structures that make the EU so successful, after protracted renegotiation. However, with restrictions on movement within the EU, and the loss of a seat in the European commission, we would be at the whim of other countries, each of which would no doubt be happy to see additional funding diverted to their own researchers. Domestic UK science might possibly overcome this, but our European collaborations may suffer far greater consequences.
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty that this decision has brought upon science, the demand for reassurance from politicians is growing from scientists, researchers and UK universities- although Michael Gove says that top UK universities should not worry as they did not become among the best in the world by being a part of any bureaucratic system. British researchers may still be able to work within European organisations, providing they can fund their projects. However, some of the EU regulations on clinical trials have previously hindered the pursuit of knowledge and set back projects- potentially an upside to Brexit.
A time of austerity is possible, and so the need to strengthen relationships and to create connections with the new political leadership is palpable. There is a possibility that UK researchers will be able to live, work and travel throughout the states of the EU, but it deems unlikely. It may be that there will be some kind of compensation, but without EU funding and grants from, for example, horizon 2020, it really is unknown what the future holds for science until negotiations to withdraw from the EU commence. However, it is important to remember that the research community reaches further than the EU- it is worldwide.