» What impact would a Brexit have on British and EU science?
22.02.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

What impact would a Brexit have on British and EU science?

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On 19 February 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a popular referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom (UK) should leave the European Union (EU) would take place on 23 June 2016. Having obtained a number of concessions from his EU partners the same day, the prime minister also announced that he would be campaigning for the UK to remain a member of the EU. Opinion polls suggest that the vote could go either way.

What impact would a British exit (Brexit) have on British and European science? The UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 analyses this question. In the chapter devoted to the European Union, the report concludes that a Brexit from the EU would have far-reaching repercussions for both British and European science.

The UK is a pole of attraction for both university students and researchers. In 2013, exports of education services were worth an estimated £17 billion and the UK hosted the largest number of research grantees from the European Research Council (ERC) of any EU country – as well as the largest number of non-nationals conducting ERC-funded research. Despite a persistently low research intensity by EU standards – 1.63% of GDP in 2013, compared to an EU average of 2.02% –, the UK has a reputation for scientific excellence: it produces 15% of the world’s most highly cited articles for a share of just 4% of the global research pool. A Brexit might affect the UK’s openness to international flows of knowledge, argues the report. The cornerstones of the EU’s single market are what are known as the four freedoms: the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. It is the free movement of people which has cristallized discontent in the UK.

The UK is one of the largest net contributors to the EU budget. Were the UK to leave the EU, the negotiations over the various options for a post-withdrawal relationship would be complex. There exist several ‘model relationships’ for European countries situated outside the EU. The ‘Norwegian model’ or the ‘Swiss model’ are the options currently seen as being the most applicable to the UK. These models are discussed in the chapter in the UNESCO Science Report on the members of the European Free Trade Association, namely Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

‘Were the UK’s future relationship with the EU to be modelled on Norway, which is a member of the European Economic Area, the UK would continue to make a significant financial contribution to the EU – potentially even close to the level of its current net contribution of about € 4.5 billion,’ observes the report. ‘In this case, the UK would be subject to much of the body of EU law and policy, yet its future influence on the EU would be limited.’

‘If, on the other hand, the UK opted for the Swiss model, it would not remain a member of the European Economic Area’, explains the report. ‘The UK would have to pay less attention to EU legislation and make a smaller financial contribution but it would have to negotiate separate agreements in many different areas, including trade in goods and services, or the movement of people between the UK and the EU.’

‘The impact of a Brexit on science and innovation in both the UK and in the EU would depend heavily on the post-withdrawal relationship between the UK and the EU,’ observes the report. ‘It is likely that the UK would wish to remain an associated member of the European Research Area, like Norway and Iceland,' in order to continue participating in the EU framework programmes for research and technological development. These are considered increasingly important in the UK for funding research, training PhDs and exchanging ideas and people. However, the co-operation agreement for each framework programme would have to be negotiated separately, especially if the UK were not a member of the European Economic Area. This could be a difficult negotiation, as Switzerland has discovered since the tightening of its own immigration laws in 2014, following a popular referendum, prompted the EU to grant Switzerland only limited rights to participation in [the latest framework programme] Horizon 2020.’

‘The EU’s structural funds would also be out of reach for the UK, were it to leave the EU. A withdrawal from the EU might also incite international firms to scale down their plans to invest in R&D in the UK. The country would no longer be a gateway to EU markets, nor would its probably stricter immigration laws be particularly supportive of such investment. Lastly, a Brexit would be likely to make the international movement of university researchers between the UK and the rest of Europe, or the world, more complicated and less appealing, owing to the greater anti-immigration sentiment in the country.’

‘In its public discourse, the research community in the UK seems to be clearly against a Brexit’, observes the report. Within days of the May 2015 parliamentary elections, a campaign website entitled Scientists for the EU had been set up. A letter signed by prominent scientists was also published by the Times on 22 May and articles appeared in The Guardian newspaper on 12 May and in Nature News on 8 May 2015. According to an article published in the Economist on 29 April, whatever the British public decides, the referendum itself is likely to create ‘political and economic turmoil’ in Britain.’

The UNESCO Science Report concludes that, ‘were the Brexit to become a reality, whatever the post-withdrawal relationship, the UK would lose its driving seat for research and innovation within the EU, which would be a loss for both sides.’

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, Box 9.5

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