Our response to the Lords EU/UK science report

On the 20th April 2016, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, published a report looking at the relationship between our EU membership and UK science. The committee took written and oral evidence from hundreds of scientists and organisations, and produced a detailed set of conclusions and recommendations, which can be read here as part [pages 5-8] of the full report. In this response, we set out our position in relation to each of the 16 conclusions.

Conclusion 1.

We share the Lord’s concern that the EU’s increased use of ‘Regulations’, as opposed to ‘Directives’, will provide national parliaments with no flexibility to adapt EU science policy to suit the needs and capabilities of UK-based research groups. We also question whether an organisation that financially supports (our own money of course) just 3% of our research and development activity, should have the ability to regulate and control whole sectors of our academic and science base.

Conclusion 2.

We agree with the report’s finding that EU regulatory frameworks are having a real and detrimental impact on UK science. The research group of our own director, Prof. Angus Dalgleish, suffered at the hands of the new EU clinical trials regulation, which overnight, put his university research group at a significant disadvantage to those funded by the large international corporations.

Conclusion 3.

We recognise that the EU’s new Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) is intended to provide independent advice and guidance to the EU Commission on scientific policy issues, and we welcome the fact that Article 3.7.e of the document setting up SAM’s High level Group of Scientific Advisors allows for the membership of scientists from outside of the EU. Indeed, the Director-General of CERN (based in Switzerland) was a founding member of this group. This adds to our argument that membership of the EU’s political union is not essential for strategic influence.

Conclusion 4.

In response to this conclusion we make two points. (1) That rules surrounding scientific membership of the SAM High Level Group make an allowance for influence from non-EU nations. (2) That non-EU nations are treated as equals within the European Research Council (ERC) – the primary EU funding mechanism for UK science research – which is autonomous of the EU Commission, and whose 22 member Scientific Council (the ERC’s governing body) can recruit its members from non-EU countries, as was demonstrated by the membership of Prof. Rolf Zinkernagel (Switzerland) from 2005-2011, and Prof. Daniel Dolev (Israel) from 2011-2015. Both the SAM and ERC recruit on the basis of scientific excellence, so given that all ERC members are to be treated equally, and that the strength of the UK science base will not change overnight, there is every likelihood that UK influence will be maintained if the British people choose to leave the political structures of the EU, and we subsequently agree to become an associated member of EU science networks.

Conclusion 5.

Many of our members have encountered the mind-numbing complexities and administrative burdens involved in participation of EU projects. Although we are told that simplifications have been made, our members are yet to see any tangible improvements. It remains our assertion that national funding structures provide a better mechanism to (i) target funding towards research that supports the national interest, (ii) produce outcomes that are more applicable to the needs of our country, (iii) provide a more simplified and enjoyable experience for participating researchers and (iv) offer better value for money.

Conclusion 6.

We accept that EU science funding forms an important component of the total UK membership fees being returned by the EU, but it is important to remember that this EU research funding supports just 3% of UK research and development, as was pointed out in paragraph 123 of the Lords report.

Conclusion 7.

We note that the Lords committee found it a challenge to define the level of EU spending on UK research and development (R&D). In this respect, we would point the Lords report’s own reference to a recent report from the Royal Society [The role of the EU in funding UK research – Dec 2015], which determined that from 2007-2013, the EU funded around 3% of the R&D activity in the UK. Further evidence comes from OECD and EU figures from 2014, which reveal that EU research networks support around 3% of R&D activity across the whole of Europe. Thus when we talk about influence and collaboration within EU networks, it’s important to remind ourselves that this relates to a tiny proportion (3%) of our nation’s research activity.

Conclusion 8.

The Lords report correctly identifies that whilst UK science fares relatively well in terms of funding for research activity, we are poorly supported in terms of the structural funds needed to support and build up our science infrastructure. The vast majority of these funds are directed towards countries with weaker economies in order to boost their scientific capacity, and whilst this is considered to be a worthy aim by many, we would point out that such an approach can only be to the detriment of UK scientists in the longer term. In building up the scientific capabilities of our potential competitors, it puts them in a better position to challenge our own ability to secure EU research funding based on scientific excellence.

Conclusion 9.

The greatest risk to the prospects of UK science and technology companies is future damaging regulation from the EU that takes decades to correct – the clinical trials directive being a classic example of this. We believe that such risks are not offset by the received levels of EU funding. Between 2007 and 2013, our business’ only received 8.3% of EU research funding aimed at business, despite us having 18% of the EU’s GDP. Evidence received during the Lords review seems to suggest that UK business’ are reluctant to engage with EU framework programmes due to concerns over the administrative burdens, and the unacceptable requirements surrounding intellectual property rights.

Conclusion 10.

We fully agree that international collaboration is crucial in ensuring that the UK science base remains dynamic and strong. However, there is good evidence to show that such collaboration is not dependent on political union. We note that our most important international collaborator is the USA, with whom we have no political union. We note that in the recent UNESCO Science Report (Towards 2030), independent countries such as Australia and Iceland produced more scientific output per capita than the UK.  We also welcome the Lords recognition that many pan-European research infrastructures, such as CERN, ESA, ESO, EMBL, EUMETSAT etc. operate on an inter-governmental basis, and as such, our continued involvement in these projects is assured. We further note that OECD and EU figures reveal that in 2014, 97% of European R&D activity occurred outside of EU funding mechanisms. The evidence is clear, EU supported research represents a tiny proportion of European research.

Conclusion 11.

We agree that EU research networks provide further opportunities to collaborate, but the involvement of 14 non-EU associate members in such networks clearly demonstrates that political union is not necessary to take part in such collaboration.

Conclusion 12.

At Scientists for Britain, we fully support researcher mobility for the purposes of academic collaboration. However, we once again refute the suggestion that this is contingent on political membership of the EU. Research by Franzoni, Scellato et al. (2012) demonstrated that researcher mobility is already evident on a global basis, to the extent that countries with strict immigration systems, such as the USA, Canada and Australia, appear to recruit a greater percentage of foreign researchers than the UK, France and Germany. The research also reveals that UK-trained researchers preferentially choose to work in the USA, Canada and Australia, despite no free movement agreements operating between our nations. We envisage that any association agreement for UK participation in EU science networks could well include a provision to ensure researcher mobility within Europe, and we would support such a clause.

Conclusion 13.

We share the Lords concern that non-EU scientists and students are being discriminated against in favour of EU migrants, but recognise the reality that uncontrolled EU migration has had a significant impact on our national infrastructure, and that the coalition government felt obliged to respond to public concern over the record inward migration figures. We would fully support an immigration system that enables the UK science base to recruit the brightest and best on an equal basis from anywhere in the world.

Conclusion 14.

Whilst we accept that non-EU research infrastructures, such as CERN, EMBL and the European Space Agency are interlinked to the EU in varying minor degrees, we reiterate that such projects are formally independent of the EU, and that UK participation in them is assured on the current terms, whether or not we leave the political structures of the EU.

Conclusion 15.

We welcome that the Lords report highlights ‘Associated Membership’ of EU science networks as a potential post-Brexit scenario. We are also pleased that the committee was not swayed by arguments that the UK would lose influence under such a scenario, and that more detailed investigation of the option should be pursued. Our understanding is that the 14 non-EU associated nations participating in the latest EU framework programme (Horizon 2020) do so on an equal basis with EU nations. We have seen evidence to confirm that non-EU nations are just as involved in H2020 on a per capita basis, and that scientists from associated countries are eligible for, and have participated in, the governing structures of the ERC, and thus maintain an ability to influence the strategic goals and funding priorities of core H2020 activities.

Conclusion 16.

We note the level of disquiet amongst many contributors in relation to the current UK-EU scientific relationship. Once again, we express concern that EU research networks supporting just 3% of UK R&D, should ever have the ability to regulate our research base. The EU’s clinical trials directive was a classic example of mission creep that has had a severe and detrimental impact upon our biochemistry sector. It is clear that the national interest is served by science and technology policy remaining a matter reserved to national parliaments, and Brexit can ensure that this will be the case.