Why the EU is good for your science, my science, and our society

As a regular collaborator with colleagues – and friends – outside of the UK, I wanted to post some thoughts on the up-coming EU referendum. For now, I will focus on science, but will add a longer post on the EU and the UK more generally if time allows over next day or two.

The EU referendum is a big decision, and I hope all my fellow academics, in St Andrews and across the UK, make themselves heard, one way or the other.

Why UK science – and my science – benefits from the EU

As a biologist, there are two clear reasons for staying in the EU. First, EU-wide science funding initiatives (such as the ERC and Horizon 2020) are of great benefit to the UK. This benefit comes not only from the funding that UK scientists successfully apply for. It also comes from the European collaborations and networks that such funding encourages and develops. These collaborations feed back into more science being done, with or without follow-on grant funding.

UK scientists have been very successful in terms of winning EU science funding, both individually and as part of Europe-wide collaborations. There is therefore a clear self-interest for UK scientists in staying in the EU, in terms of access to this grant funding. Of course, leavers could argue that such (cynical?) financial self-interest should cut little ice outside of academe.

However, if the case for the benefits to society of scientific activity is accepted, then someone has to pay for that science. I suspect that few of those who have given much thought to the role of science in modern life would argue against the social and economic value of the knowledge and technological advances that science brings (even if one does not always like what that knowledge is – for instance, we actually are causing the world to warm-up).

Out of the EU, UK science funding could be boosted by whatever financial and economic benefits would accrue from leaving – if, of course, there are any. We do not know this for sure though, either in terms of the benefits of leaving the EU or how any benefits would be parcelled out between the NHS, farmers, schools, and so on.

Leavers may also argue that we would still be able to apply for EU-wide funding, when all of the negotiations are done-and-dusted, but again there has to be much uncertainty about whether that would indeed be the case.

The second reason for staying in the EU is of much broader scope. It is to do with the benefits to science, and then to all of society, of being part of an international community. The EU, for any of its supposed faults, plays a major role in building Europe-wide communities of scientists, thinkers, and artists. These communities enrich all our cultures and all our lives. We should be aware of the risks of damaging them.

And leaving would damage them. We would now be representatives of a country that seeks to exclude, to look inward, and to diminish contacts with others. It is not good enough to say that things will carry on as before, as if nothing had happened. Something would have happened, and our continental partners would be fully aware of that, and be right to feel at least mixed emotions about our future engagement with them. Collaborations are two-way streets, and leaving the EU would change the dynamics of how we interact. Far beyond issues of funding, how we move between laboratories, how we engage with the best minds amongst our neighbours, and how we influence the pressing decisions facing our planet, would all be changed by leaving the EU.

Famously, science has always acted across borders, bringing like-minded people together, come what may. As such, leavers may argue that concerns over trans-national collaborations are insubstantial at best, irrelevant at worst.

Like it or not though, there is strong empirical evidence that geography does matter to science. It influences how we collaborate and how we exchange ideas. For all the effects of globalisation and the worldwide web, we have not yet reached the “end of geography” any more than we have reached the end of history.

As a country, closing our borders, and closing our minds, to our closest intellectual partners would be a mistake. Whilst it would not be the “end of science” either, it would set UK science on a lonelier and a more difficult path – it is not a path that we should take lightly.

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