Brexit: A Conundrum for UK Science

Here in the South West we are blessed with some incredible research organisations doing exciting and cutting edge research that has far reaching benefits for the wider population and the world more generally.

For its size, the UK punches well above its weight with funding, with us securing a disproportionately high amount from the EU. The UK benefits from the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 programme, and in these first years of the programme have had the largest share of participations in signed grant agreements. We are second only to Germany in the financial contributions received from these grant agreements. And this same pattern is seen in earlier EU grant rounds.

Access to research funding

A recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report provided figures showing that between 2007 and 2013 the UK contributed about €5.4bn earmarked for the EU research budget, and received about €8.8bn for research and innovation activities. EU government funding now makes up about 10% of the income of higher education institutions.

At a time when long term planning and investment are needed more than ever, the longevity and stability of the EU research programmes is beneficial to those running research organisations and labs looking at issues that extend beyond the 5 year parliamentary time frame.

Our own government has reduced the amount of money available to fund research, and with just 1.63% of our GDP spent on research and development we are falling behind other EU nations in the priority we place upon research. While winning EU funding is a good thing, some regions of the UK, are much more dependent upon this money than others. A recent report from Digital Science showed the South West receives a greater proportion of its funding from the EU than the rest of the UK on average, with Dorset and Somerset receiving 60% of its publicly funded research money from the EU. There is obviously the potential for significant cuts in the event we leave.

But access to funding is not the only way that our membership of the EU benefits the science and research that feeds into our economy, there are other benefits too.

People flows

In an industry that relies upon accessing highly skilled individuals, the ability of people to move freely around Europe is paramount – this enables researchers to work with a wide range of other people and facilitates best practice and skills sharing, exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking and provides cultural enrichment.

Long term collaborations arise from this movement of people around different countries and there is a rich flow of knowledge running alongside them. Nearly 50% of the UK’s scientific publications in 2012 had non-UK co-authors, these publications typically have a higher impact than those published solely by UK researchers.

Specialist infrastructure and facilities

Another area where our own government has reduced the money available is through ‘capital’ expenditure – typically used for buildings and infrastructure, facilities and specialist equipment. Reduced funding and increasing costs can put infrastructure out of the financial reach of one country alone can be problematic for today’s research. However, membership of the EU enables sharing of such infrastructure and facilities across member countries, spreads the overall cost and opens up access to researchers.

Some of these EU funded facilities are located here in the UK, carry out internationally recognised research, and attract additional funding from outside the EU too.

Access to patients

For medical researcher on rare diseases, getting the required numbers of people for studies and clinical trials from one country alone can be problematic when the percentage of population affected is very low. Collaboration supported by EU clinical trials regulation across multiple countries, is critical for sharing information and facilitates the recruitment of patients from many countries for trials. Common EU standards also support this process.

And the benefit of a single market can be seen with medicines and medical devices. Authorisation for use across the single market only need happen once, rather than going through the lengthy procedure for each country it is to be used in, keeping the cost down. For a patient with a rare disease in a country where there is only a small population affected, this may be the difference between accessing a medicine and not.

Harmonisation of standards

EU bureaucracy and directives are frequently cited as reasons for why we should leave the EU, but this neglects to recognise when harmonisation is a real benefit. For example, the EU directive on Clinical Trials upholds the highest levels of patient safety through regulation of the conduct of clinical trials. Not only does this require all member countries to adhere to standards of legality, transparency and quality but it also means all data from clinical trials are captured and recorded in an EU-wide database.

And in areas such as patents and drugs licencing, which takes scientific research to the next step, the harmonisation of the approval process across all EU member countries means it is faster and simpler.But don’t just take our word for it, a massive 77% of researchers polled by Nature said we’re better of remaining in the EU, and Scientists for EU have a wide reaching campaign that you should also check out.

It is possible to find flaws, and problems with all these issues, after all when is anything ever perfect? But by being part of the EU we are able to be a leading part of the conversation to shape and improve things. We contribute to developing policy and advising on scientific issues through the Scientific Advice Mechanism, ensure that the UK’s voice on science is heard, and are able to propose changes when things don’t work so well, all because of our current position within the EU.