Scientists in Britain could lose millions of pounds in research funds if the nation leaves the European Union, according to a cross-party group of peers.
In the latest intervention in the Brexit debate, the Lords science committee warns that substantial EU research funds now flowing into the UK were not likely to be covered by future governments if Britain left the union.
The UK contributed nearly £4.3bn for EU research projects from 2007 to 2013, but received nearly £7bn back over the same period, the committee states in a report published on Wednesday. The £2.7bn excess was equivalent to more than £300m in research funds a year.
“We do well at the moment. We get more back from Europe than we contribute towards research, and you would have to be extremely trusting of the future Chancellor of the Exchequer to think that sort of funding would continue in the event of Brexit,” said John Palmer, the Earl of Selborne, and pro-Europe chairman of the committee. “In the short term, it’s pretty obvious to us that there would be other claims on the public purse.”
The likelihood that the EU money would not be replaced by government funds was emphasised by science minister Jo Johnson, who told the committee: “It would be rash to pretend that it would be easy to replace it in the event of Brexit.”
Academics who gave evidence to the peers stressed the importance of the EU for collaborative projects and the free movement of researchers. The concerns echo those raised in March by more than 150 members of the Royal Society who warned that leaving the EU could hamper research in Britain, because so many young scientists were recruited from Europe. Among them was Stephen Hawking who said Brexit would be “a disaster for UK science.”
While much of the report covers the benefits of being in the EU, scientists had mixed views on the success of directives and regulations drawn up in Brussels. Rules around clinical trials and the protection of animals in research were largely praised, but other regulations were criticised for being overly restrictive, such as those on genetically modified foods, and the health and environmental impacts of chemicals.
Despite the problems researchers raised, many who were critical of EU regulations were in favour of remaining in the union to ensure that UK scientists had a voice in discussions to improve the legal frameworks. “It’s important to hang in there to influence regulations that might be less than perfect,” Palmer said.
In drawing up the report, the committee looked at alternative scenarios to remaining in the EU, and focused particularly on what a Switzerland-like deal would mean, with Britain obtaining associated country status. The UK would still be able to receive EU funds, but lose its high level strategic influence on EU science policy.
The peers took broad evidence from academics in the scientific community, but businesses in the field were more coy at coming forwards, said Iain Vallance, a member of the committee, and former BT chairman. The report found that while small and medium sized UK companies competed well for EU funds, large companies appeared to fare much worse than their rivals in France and Germany.
The UK government’s support for large business looking to be involved in EU programmes is weaker than in other competitor countries, a shortcoming the report urges ministers to address, by benchmarking the level of help it offers against that in other states. “Large UK businesses should take another look to see if they are getting as much out of the EU as they could,” he said.
This article was written by Ian Sample Science editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th April 2016 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010