Baby don’t Brexit, no more

“Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimises barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration”- Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize winner and director of the Francis Crick Institute.

Since Brexit all kicked off a couple of days ago I’m still waiting for people to make a big fuss about one of the most important issues our country will soon face: loss of EU funding for science and technology.

Both the Vote Remain and Vote Leave campaigns have been spinning us these hypothetical, exaggerated or plain wrong facts and figures (Let’s calm it down a bit Nigel, eh?) but luckily for me senior UK scientists have put together a series of reports setting out exactly what money comes from the EU, where it goes and how it is spent. That’s the thing with geeks- we like our data.

Joking aside, I really wish more had been made of these reports as they reveal the blatant fact that British science and technology relies hugely on support from the EU (you can find links to both reports I’m discussing here at the bottom of this post).

Let’s start by looking at the role the UK plays in international science contributions- we are the 5th largest generator of science and technology journal articles after the USA, China, Japan and Germany. This is pretty amazing considering we only invest 1.63% of our GDP into research projects, ranking us 20th in the world league table for research and development spending as a percentage of GDP. This gap between financial input and success rate output has largely been filled by EU funds. For example over the past 10 years the EU contributed £126m to UK cancer research programmes alone, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the £1bn of EU funds put into UK information and computer systems research over the same 10 years.

For those that say the EU takes more than it gives I direct you to the figures recently presented by the House of Lords science and technology committee which showed that over the period of 2007–2013, the UK paid £4.3bn into EU science projects but got back £7bn in research funding from the EU over the same time period. The committee then pointed out that this £2.7bn excess equated to more than £300m being spent on research and development in the UK every year.

Evidently British R&D will take a significant hit following Brexit but a further consideration, which to me is much closer to home, is the impact that this decision will have on British universities. Social betterment invariably coincides with education and the allocation of resources to promote a better way of life in young people, a phenomenon in part facilitated by funding awarded to UK universities and the commercial sector from the European Commission (EC) and the European Research Council (ERC). The graph I have included here shows distribution of funding from the EC and ERC, 16% of which was allocated to the UK second only to Germany who received 17%.

Figure from Digital Research Report into effect of Brexit on UK science showing breakdown of EC and ERC funding awarded between 2006 and 2015. ‘Other EU’= bottom 15 EU grant winning nations. ‘Non EU’= countries outside the EU who received funding.

Here, the top 5 British universities received a combined sum in excess of £2bn over a ten year period, a large proportion of which is put into STEM subjects particularly Evolutionary Biology (67% funding is from EU), Forestry Sciences (53%) and Biomedical Sciences (>40%).

This revelation of the extent to which the EU supports British universities really rubs salt in the Brexit wound. Over 75% of people in the 18–24 age category voted to remain, compared with just 40% in the over 65s. It is these young people who will have to live with this decision, not made by them, and are now facing uncertainty over the future of their education.

We know research requires money (try telling your supervisor you forgot to balance the centrifuge) but it also requires innovation. Once we’ve gotten over the idea that our EU funding has screeched to a halt (rather like the centrifuge) we will then face a drought in new and insightful thinkers from all over Europe who, according to the Royal Society, make up 16% of researchers in British universities.

Even if funding is re-established following Brexit, which is unlikely according to science minister Jo Johnson, there cannot be a fire when there is fuel but no flame rendering our metaphorical Bunsen burners obsolete.

As Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse put it, “Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimises barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration”.

In other words, scientific success relies on more than just money. It relies on our ability to work with each other, learn from each other and present new ideas to an international platform of thinkers in an environment built on trust and openness. To turn our backs on the EU is to turn our backs on everything the science community has proudly built. The shockwaves of Brexit are sure to be felt for a very long time to come.