On the 23rd of June those of us who can will vote on whether we believe Britain should remain a part of the EU. This decision could result in implications for most facets of British society, and one that shouldn’t be made on a single issue. However, recently many leading scientific figures have publicly expressed their concern (or lack of, in a few cases) regarding the potential impact on science.

The actual implications of Britain leaving the EU are difficult to fully address as it is not clear what agreement will be made with the EU. There are, however, several current arrangements that can be used as potential models.

Firstly, Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), allowing Norway almost unrestricted access to the European single market. Norway contributes to the EU budget, is a member of the Shengen area allowing free movement of people within European member countries, and is bound by many EU laws and regulations. However, as Norway is not a member of the EU it has little power to influence these laws and regulations. A ‘Norway’ model of agreement would allow Britain access to the single market, retain freedom of movement, but it would also mean Britain would be bound by the legislation and regulations of the EU courts while removing any ability to influence content. As an important global scientific nation in both volume and impact of research, we hold 3.3% of the global scientific researchers, we currently have an influential voice in the direction of scientific legislation, and losing this ability to use our global stature could be misguided.

The second model is the ‘Swiss’ model. Switzerland is not part of the EEA, but has opted to negotiate a slew of bilateral trade agreements with the EU, currently over 120. While Switzerland accepts free movement and does pay some fees toward the EU, it is by and large not bound by EU court rulings. However, in 2014 Switzerland held a referendum to limit immigration which caused a number of retaliatory movements by the EU, and has subsequently restricted its access to many EU programmes, including Horizon 2020 and ERC funding for science. There has been implication that the Swiss agreement is in trouble and that it may be party to even further restriction by the EU.

The third option would be similar to the agreement Canada has with the EU currently. Canada has a generous trade deal with the EU, in an attempt to reduce regulatory barriers and improve trade fluidity between the two areas. If Britain were to go down the route of completely absenting ourselves from Europe, it would likely be looking for a similar agreement. Britain would no longer be required to accept free movement, and researchers would be ineligible to apply for funding from EU schemes. It would also remove access to the single market, and any trade agreements made with the EU, requiring Britain to negotiate separate trade agreements with non-EU member states. The US and China have both already publicly stated that they would preferentially trade with the EU than Britain.

So, if Britain were to decide to leave, how would that impact on science? The three main issues identified as having a potential impact, are; access to EU research and development grant funding, access to the single market and EU regulations for industry, and free movement of EU citizens between member states.

In regards to funding, there are two main schemes from the EU. The European research council (ERC) funds over 1000 research projects in UK universities. Britain is the largest recipient, amounting to 22% of all ERC allocation. The second scheme is the European Framework Programme for research and development funding, currently known as Horizon 2020. 15.4% of which was awarded to British based research.

Overall from 2007-2013 Britain contributed €5.4bn (£4.2bn) to the EU research budget and received €8.8bn (£6.9bn) back in grants, resulting in Britain gaining an extra €3.4bn (£2.7bn). However, overall the UK contributed €78bn (£60.9bn) and got back only €48bn (37.5bn) leading to a net contribution of €30bn. This has lead to the implication that the €3.4bn loss from EU grants, could be made up by the British government were Britain to leave the EU and cease paying into the EU budget.

Secondly, industry and regulatory implications. There have been many complaints regarding the excessive administration and bureaucracy of attempting to operate within the EU. However, despite these issues many industrial leaders have publicly stated their concerns about the consequences of a British exit from the EU. “Today, we have one single regulatory authority, one process that facilitates sharing data and information across countries and gives approval for a new medicine across the entire European Community. This is effective for companies, health systems and ultimately for patients” stated Pascal Soriot, CEO Astra Zeneca.

Britain is currently seen as a ‘gateway’ to the European single market. Coupled with high performing academic science this makes Britain a desirable base to develop companies. Several regulatory bodies’ headquarters are based in the UK, including the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and also the EU’s new intellectual property system, the unitary patent and court, which has been developed to resolve pharmaceutical disputes. These would both need to relocate if Britain were to exit the EU. Peter George, CEO of Clinigen stated if this were to happen “[The UK’s] regulatory status will be significantly diminished in the eyes of the world”. Neither of these statements imply a death knell for the British science industry. It would however, be important to ensure trade agreements were favourable to reduce the impact of open access to the single market, as well as timely. Allowing Britain to make arrangements with non-EU countries and minimise the severity and longevity of the initial impact, and re-establish Britain’s standing in the sector.

Lastly, there is the issue of free movement of people. 15% of all university staff are non-UK EU nationals, rising to 20% in ‘elite’ universities. Loss of free movement, would impact the ease with which the UK could recruit the most capable researchers from within Europe. However, it is more likely to impact on undergraduate and postgraduate students, who are reliant on EU member status and those EU funded programmes mentioned above.

Perhaps more worryingly, loss of free movement would have a significant impact on collaboration, which is vitally important in research, with international contributors frequently required for the highest impact research. Free movement allows EU member states to behave as one research area, and instigate collaborations of skills and equipment (and funding). The EU funds several large scale research initiatives which would be near impossible for one country to co-ordinate alone. Alan Thorpe, former director of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, said that Europeans “are the envy of the world in what we can do collectively” in science. Having already mentioned the impact of British science it is difficult say how likely it would be that such an important player would be completely frozen out of these projects, however at the very least it is going to make things a lot more difficult.  Is Britain confident enough in its reputation to go up against other member states that wouldn’t come with such ‘baggage’?

As far as the referendum goes, there are issues that are going to be much more heavily impacted than British science should we choose to leave the EU. But, for science, as for all of the other economic and social issues involved in this vote, are we confident enough that we are better off out, or is the fact that we will ‘probably be ok’ enough? This blogger is not so sure …..

CaSE has put together a really useful summary report for anyone who would like to do any further reading on the subject.

Written by Brooke Lumicisi