A powerful United Kingdom parliamentary committee has warned that Britain could lose high-level strategic influence over not only European but more widely international science policy in the event of a Brexit after the June referendum on continued membership.
While it also highlighted some negative aspects of the UK’s European Union membership, such as restrictive EU regulations that could prohibit innovative research, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found a number of compelling reasons for recognising the importance of EU membership to British science.
The report of its sixth-month inquiry says that nearly a fifth (18.3%) of all the UK’s incoming EU funding goes on scientific research and development.
The committee said that freedom of movement for “talented” researchers and scientists between the UK and across the rest of the EU is “an absolutely key benefit to the UK, and every effort should be made to preserve it”.
It noted that collaborative opportunities are “perhaps the most significant benefit” that EU membership affords science and research in the UK.
In one example reported to the committee, the pan-European bioscience research project ELIXIR was believed to have been headquartered in the UK as a result of its EU membership.
The committee examined the implications of alternatives to the UK being a full EU member state.
“One example would be becoming an Associated Country,” the report says. “The inquiry heard that the UK would still be able to receive EU funds, and would continue with involvement in European and international scientific projects, but many thought that it would no longer have the same level of high-level strategic influence.”
It concluded that further investigation was necessary to ascertain how Brexit might impact Britain’s currently influential position in Europe.
Committee chair, the Earl of Selborne, commented: “The UK science community places a high value on the UK’s membership of the EU. Collaboration, funding, facilities and policy make EU membership a key part of the UK’s outstanding science base, and this report looks at these areas in detail.
“Our aim was to present a much clearer picture of the position of UK science within the EU, but we had to cut through a dense ‘Eurofog’ of claim and counterclaim on many aspects of membership in order to do so.
“Many witnesses claimed that the UK is a top performer in the race for research and development funding when that is only part of the picture. UK universities have outstanding performance in EU funding competitions while UK businesses, in particular large businesses, have low levels of participation and the UK, understandably, does not receive a high level of funding for scientific capacity building.
“We urge the government to benchmark the level of support it provides for businesses, large and small, wishing to participate in EU programmes against that available in other member states. We want to see government plans for raising UK performance.”
But he said it was “plainly evident” that UK science gains competitive advantage from close proximity and easy access to major facilities within Europe, and from collaboration between scientists in EU member states and non-members on the European continent.
“We are optimistic about the new arrangements for scientific advice in the EU and heard repeatedly about the high levels of influence that the UK has secured in advisory and policy circles. That is just as well, because the effective use of science advice is an essential part of good policy…
“As an Associated Country, or potentially one even further detached, we could no longer have our seat at the decision-making table. The committee concluded that further investigation would be needed to establish the extent of this loss of influence.”
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, who gave evidence to the committee, said: “The UK would lose influence on EU science policy in the event of a vote to leave. This would be bad for the EU, and it would be bad for the UK.
“Membership of the EU allows UK and European researchers to pool their resources, expertise and data to achieve more together than they could do alone. It is good for our universities and good for the science and research that improves people’s lives. Outside the EU, we risk cutting ourselves off from unique support and networks and undermining the UK’s position as a global leader in science and innovation.
“The evidence shows that our universities and research are significantly stronger within the EU.”
Students back EU membership
Further evidence of the support from the 'remain' campaign came in what was described by the pro-Brexit Daily Express as a “shock” poll showing that 76% of students backed staying in the EU.
The survey, conducted for the National Union of Students or NUS, found students were concerned about potential job losses and price rises in the event of a Brexit.
Drawing on a poll of 1,000 students, the NUS said other key findings showed how 14% of students said they would vote to leave, with a further 10% undecided.
Launching a drive to ensure young people turn out to vote in favour of the EU at the referendum, NUS President Megan Dunn said: "We must make sure the student voice is too powerful to be ignored in this referendum.
"The EU advances and protects the values that Britain's young people believe in and is a force for tolerance and respect."
In a setback for 'moderates' Dunn was defeated in the election to be next year’s president by Malia Bouattia, currently the Black Students' officer, who has denied accusations of anti-semitism. She will be the NUS’s first black woman president.
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