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Science and EU membership

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UNTIL recently, most UK publications, including Veterinary Record, would rarely begin an article discussing the EU without making an apology or employing some sort of diversionary tactic first. They were certainly loathe to put the words ‘European Union’ in a headline. The concern was that the subject was considered so boring and complicated that mentioning it early on would put people off, and that readers would immediately turn to something more interesting. With the prospect of a referendum on June 23, and a sudden demand for information, all that seems to have changed, at least for the time being, so we make no apologies for drawing attention to a recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, on the effects of EU membership on UK science.

The report, which was published last month,1 discusses the results of an inquiry undertaken by the committee in an attempt ‘to understand and characterise the principal linkages between EU membership and the effectiveness of science in research’ against the background of the forthcoming referendum. True to form, it found that the situation is complicated and somewhat confused: as the committee's chairman, the Earl of Selborne, commented on publication of the report, ‘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.’ Nevertheless, in its report, the committee does its best to provide an objective assessment of the evidence it received. As a result, the report makes a useful contribution to a debate in which this kind of approach is too often lacking.

The select committee contends that it is ‘irrefutable’ that the UK's research excellence was established long before the inception of European integration in 1952. Nevertheless, it reports that ‘The overwhelming balance of opinion made known to this committee from the UK science community valued greatly the UK's membership of the European Union.’ Science, it points out, is a major component of the UK's membership of the EU, with nearly one fifth (18.3 per cent) of EU funding to the UK being spent on research and development. The UK performs well in terms of competing for funds on the basis of research excellence but, understandably, says the committee, does less well in obtaining structural funds aimed at building research capacity. The UK might be considered a net contributor to the EU overall, but it is a net receiver of funding for research. Although it might be argued that the Government might make up the funding shortfall in the event of Britain leaving the EU, this is by no means certain. Jo Johnson, the minister of state for universities and science, told the committee that ‘It would be rash to pretend that it would be easy to replace it [the financial contribution from the EU to UK science and research] in the event of Brexit when we would not know what other claims there might be on the public purse, nor what state our economy would be in.’

Some of those giving evidence to the committee expressed concern that some EU regulatory frameworks are having a detrimental effect on UK and EU science, with areas such as genetic modification and clinical trials being highlighted as areas where UK businesses and research might be disadvantaged compared to competitors outside the EU. In this context, the committee expresses concern about an apparent trend towards the development of overarching EU regulations, rather than EU directives which allow more flexibility. At the same time, it sees value in the harmonisation of regulatory frameworks across the EU and points out that, as things stand, the UK plays a leading role in the development of EU policies and decision-making processes relating to science and research, and has often played a key role in developing more appropriate frameworks.

The provision of opportunities to collaborate is, the committee reports, a significant aspect of EU membership, and it suggests that the ease with which talented researchers can currently move between EU member states and the UK is ‘of critical importance to the UK's science community, including academia, businesses and charities’. A corollary of this might be that non-EU international researchers could be put at a disadvantage by the EU's freedom of movement rules, but the committee says that it received no substantial evidence that this is the case. Instead, it suggests that it is the UK's own immigration policy that underlies any disadvantage there might be to non-European researchers. It concludes that researcher mobility must be protected if UK science and research is to remain world-leading.

On the negative side, although the number of businesses giving evidence to the inquiry was relatively small, the committee reports that there were indications that UK businesses are less engaged than academics in EU research and development, and are awarded less in the way of EU funding than businesses in competitor countries. It has no definitive explanation for this, but notes that EU bureaucracy and a relatively low level of support to businesses from the UK Government were cited as part of the picture.

Overall, it would be hard to conclude from the information presented in the report that leaving the EU is likely to benefit UK science. However, it is the nature of this debate that those campaigning to leave the EU will probably interpret it differently and almost certainly disagree.

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