Our response to the Cambridge Letter

The following is our formal response to the letter written to the Times Newspaper on the 10th March, by 150 Cambridge-based Royal Society Fellows.


We write in response to the letter by 150 Cambridge-based Royal Society Fellows, who claimed that leaving the EU would be a ‘disaster’ for UK science and universities. Whilst we recognize the academic distinction of these dedicated researchers, we are disappointed that their letter was very high on rhetoric and lacked evidence to support their claims.

With regard to their comment about increased EU funding, we would point out that the Royal Society’s own report – The role of the EU in funding UK research (Dec 2015) – reveals that between 2007-2013, EU science networks (known as FP7) funded just 3% of UK expenditure on research and development. Notwithstanding the fact that this funding is UK tax-payer money, albeit channelled through the EU bureaucracy, the authors of the Cambridge letter must have little confidence in the UK science community if they think that the loss of 3% of funding would constitute a disaster.

Where the authors of the Cambridge letter see a UK scientific and academic base reliant of EU membership, we see a strong, dynamic and vibrant community punching way above its weight. Indeed a recent UNESCO science report (Towards 2030) revealed that for a country with 0.9% of the world’s population, the UK has 3.3% of the world’s scientific researchers, who in turn produce 6.9% of global scientific output. Furthermore, a recent UK Government funding document – BIS: Allocation of Science and Research Funding 2015/16 – noted that the UK produced around 15.1% of the world’s most highly-cited (or regarded) scientific papers. If you also consider that the UK has 5 of the world’s top 20 Universities (QS Rankings 2016) where the rest of the EU has none, then it is difficult to see how the Cambridge RS fellows come to the conclusion that the UK is in such a weak position that it cannot thrive outside of the EU project.

The ‘Cambridge 150’ suggest that many of our best scientists come from continental Europe. Whilst there is no doubt that the UK science community benefits enormously from the recruitment of talented scientists from around the world, with several reports indicating that around 30% of our researchers come from overseas, the 3% EU contribution into our R&D networks must surely demonstrate that the vast majority of these researchers have been recruited and are supported outside of EU science networks. Add to this the many collaborative projects such as CERN, the European Space Agency and EUMETSAT, all of which are non-EU intergovernmental organisations, and you soon realise that European science is so much more than the EU networks being lauded as crucial by the Cambridge Fellows. Indeed, figures for 2014 from the OECD and EU estimate that 97% of Europe’s R&D activity, as a whole, takes place outside of EU science networks. So for eminent scientists to suggest that European collaboration would somehow stop following a vote to leave the political structures of the EU is extremely disappointing.

We would also like to point out that there is no logical reason why the UK’s involvement in EU science networks could not continue following a political separation. If there was an appetite, and if the terms were acceptable, then the UK could seek to join the Horizon 2020 programme on the same pay-in basis as 13 non-EU countries already do, countries that include Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Israel. Given the high esteem in which the European Research Council appears to hold the UK science community, the continuation of a mutually beneficial science collaboration would be in everyone’s interest, and would meet the obligations of the remaining EU states, as set out in Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty – namely, “close and peaceful relations, based on cooperation”.

On the subject of Switzerland, the Cambridge letter gives the impression that the non-EU nation has been partially excluded from EU science networks following a national decision to restrict the free movement of workers with the EU. On this, we would make two points. The first is that recent CORDIS data (Feb 2016) reveals that per capita, Switzerland is actually more involved in the new Horizon 2020 EU funding programme than the UK, Germany, France and Spain. Second, should the UK seek to maintain its involvement in EU science networks (as mentioned above), then it could negotiate to replicate the Israeli model of associated membership, which does not involve free movement with the EU and yet sees Israel as a net beneficiary of their involvement in the European Research Area.

The Cambridge letter ends with a comment that free movement of scientists is vital for science, and whilst we fully agree with this statement, the free movement of scientists in NOT in any way contingent on being part of a political union. Indeed, research by Franzoni, Scellato et al. (2012) revealed that independent countries with strict immigration controls, such as Australia, Canada and the USA, recruit a greater percentage of foreign researchers than the UK, France and Germany. The research also reveals that the primary destination for UK-trained scientists is not the EU, but is the USA, Australia and Canada – none of which we have a free movement agreement with. Furthermore, we note that a worrying situation has recently developed in the UK, whereby our inability to control migration from EU nations has forced the UK government to adopt more restrictive entry requirements for non-EU citizens, in an attempt to control overall numbers. Our concern is that such measures unfairly discriminate against the brightest minds from the rest of the world, which can only prove detrimental to UK science.

In conclusion, we would like to remind readers that the forthcoming referendum is not a vote on our membership of a science club; it is a vote on whether we wish to remain part of a political union that has openly declared its federalist ambitions, some of which already impact on our daily lives.

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