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Imagine British science outside the EU

Last Friday, May 13, a small room in London was filled with scientists debating British membership of the EU, and its implications for science and research. The small auditorium in University College London was filled by EU citizens, mostly academics, concerned with the day after. After all, the organisers were the Society of Spanish Researchers in the U.K.

Really, nothing will change

There was no surprise there.

The surprise was of course that the Leave/Out campaigns were present to make the case that nothing will really happen to science and scientists coming from the EU, or the quality of scientific research in Britain.

A poll by Nature magazine suggests that 83% of U.K’s scientists want Britain to remain in the EU. Scientists are unconvinced by the case made by the “Leave” and “Out” campaigns, who think Britain can continue to participate in much the same terms in scientific cooperation in the EU, having slammed the door on the project of European Integration.

Well, those who favour Brexit will tell you this perception is the result of a smear campaign by the cosmopolitan establishment, and Britain has some of the top research institutions in the world.

During the meeting, Charles Leach, financial analyst and one of the founders of the site was there to say that science is really something that happens between peer geologists, for example, from Frankfurt and Essex, and nothing really comes in-between.

He, of course, went on to reassure the room that scientists from the EU in the U.K. really have nothing to fear. It is a fact that EU citizens make up 15% of the U.K.’s academic staff, and the site he created boasts of how three million migrants will finally be “controlled” after a Brexit, leaving more jobs for indigenous talent.

Ok, mobility funds would go. But, when it comes to core research, the U.K would lose maybe 3% of total funding. That is peanuts, and could easily be replaced by national funding, from the £350 million that Britain “gives away” to the EU every week, as David Banks, of the “Scientists for Britain” campaign would argue.

What has the EU ever done for us?

Make no mistake: Britain has been rightfully a principal beneficiary and contributor to science collaboration in Europe. And no one would disagree that Britain gets more than it puts in for its science, and for a good reason.

Since 2000, the EU aims at honing a common European Research Area (ECR). This includes common research infrastructure, field research collaboration, and the interconnection of innovation and governance. By pooling resources from Nicosia to Warwick and from Tallinn to Madrid, Europe is a leader in critical sectors. Britain is a big part of that.

The knowledge alliances honed through EU funding often translate to value chains, competitiveness, not to mention the widening of academic and cultural horizons. Each nation-state, as capable and talent-rich as it may be, will be dwarfed by the gigantic talent pools of India and China or the wealth and size of U.S universities. But, as soon as “working together” is on the table, political debates become explicit. And they often gravitate around cash and priorities.

London has a big say in these debates, argues Lucy Shackleton, of the Universities for Europe campaign.

When it comes to public funding, the usual debate is whether to fund “excellence” or the “capacity to excel” (redistribution). The UK has time and again favoured the principle of excellence and for a good reason. Britain is the top performer in absorbing ECR funding in absolute terms, leaving Germany a distant second, precisely because the system errs towards excellence.

Although the U.K is among the lowest spenders in the OECD of basic research, Britain is a leader in publications, citations, and innovation. Under the FP7 framework, 80% of all successful project applications included a U.K partner. The tradition still holds under Horizon 2020.

Amplifying a British unique selling point

Unique selling points are amplified in an EU framework; for instance, the U.K has been a key arbiter between India and the EU, scaling up competitive advantage. In addition, Britain draws from Europe’s talent pool, since the current “Lingua Franca” is in fact English.

Perhaps European money is not that much as a percentage of total funding. But, EU money is very well spent, because it is “seed money.” Public funding plays a prominent role as basic research is not immediately profitable and can be extremely risky. Private capital likes to match this kind of funding.

Selling Britain by the Euro

But, Britain can live without Euros and without European scientists and talent. European value chains will be just as open as they have ever been. A country that does not spend much money on basic research will suddenly find the appetite for it; Britain can live without EU funding and talent.

Mr Banks made the case.

For example, he argues, the biggest beneficiary “per capita” of EU research funding is Iceland. But, to achieve this Iceland only needs to participate in a single Horizon project given Iceland’s population.

Seriously now, there will be solutions.

Given the commercialisation of higher education, nothing is stopping major U.K universities setting up subsidiaries in the EU.

There is nothing that stops the U.K paying its way into cooperation, like Switzerland, without a place on the table when it comes to policy and decision-making. And it is indeed the case that British academia will not suddenly stop being world class, come June 24th.

But, that nothing will happen, is an illusion. Something will happen, to the detriment of the European Research Area, but also the U.K.