The scientific community has nothing to fear from leaving the EU

The scientific community has nothing to fear from leaving the EU

The UK, for its size, is almost certainly the world’s leading scientific country – with less than 1% of the world’s population, but an inspiring 15% of the most highly-cited scientific papers and more Nobel Prize winners than any other European country.

Britain is the world leader in biotechnology and digital tech and our greatest potential collaborators and prospective rivals are in Asia and America – not in Europe. We have four or five of the world’s top 20 universities including the one in the top spot, the University of Oxford; the rest of the entire EU by comparison has none! The idea that Britain’s universities are under real threat if we leave the EU is nonsense.

Many people in our universities appear to be under the impression that the main EU science funding programme, Horizon 2020, is only available to members of the European Union. The EU and senior figures in academia intentionally do nothing to correct this fallacy.

Specifically in the university sphere, some fear that on leaving the EU we will lose access to Horizon 2020 (which actually provides only 3% of Britain’s science budget). Yet Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are in these programmes too. Israel, Tunisia and even Turkey get funding. Altogether, 15 countries are in the EU science funding programmes but not in the EU itself.

Scientists are supposed to be analytical, reasoned and, most importantly, honest. If the truth isn’t reported, how can science advance as it should? In the lead-up to the referendum, I experienced the worst examples of intellectual dishonesty about the dangers of Brexit, but I hadn’t expected any of them to come from the scientific community. It felt as though everyone around me thought the sky was about to fall in, and it was a Sisyphean task to convince them otherwise.

The Government has said that funding will be matched when we eventually leave. Most of the major Europe-wide science projects like CERN and the ESA are not reliant on EU money (for which I do of course mean taxpayers’ money) and so will not be significantly affected by one country’s decision to leave.

Being in the EU discriminates against the brightest and the best from outside the EU, with non-EU students making up the majority of STEM subject places for overseas students but EU students having the automatic right to work here. This is myopic in the extreme, not only do we discriminate by nationality but we aren’t training enough UK graduates because university places are given to overseas students because they pay higher fees.

So if you are from the UK and want to be an engineer or a chemist you have to fight even harder to get a place at university. It’s not just down to academic ability, it’s down to money. STEM subject applications are on the slide in the UK and this has to be addressed as a matter of priority.

Britain leaving the EU will put some off coming here but we are no less open as a country. Our scientists, many of whom voted to Leave, shouldn’t panic but rather see Brexit as an opportunity.