Remain or Leave? What could it mean for scientific research?

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

Ahead of the in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, ITV News looks at the potential impact on scientific research.

  • The UK's role on the global scientific stage

The UK is a world leader in scientific research. Whether it's smashing particles, gazing at the heavens or unlocking the secrets of cancer, scientists in Britain produce more groundbreaking research per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

British science is second only to the United States in terms of output and matches the best in the world when it comes to impact and quality.

That reputation is built on bringing the best minds to Britain from wherever they might be in the the world and, in particular because of the easier visa regime, Europe.

  • How might leaving the EU affect scientists?

Professor Tom Blundell, a leading cancer researcher based at Cambridge University, told ITV News that though British scientists had played an important role in his lab over the past 40 years, if he had tried to run his lab with them alone, he would never have been competitive.

The best scientists operate in an international market place, going to whichever countries welcome them with the best terms and freedom to do their work. Make it difficult for them in some way - a higher or more complex visa requirements, say, or more paperwork - and you will inevitably lose top talent.

A recent poll for the journal Nature found that more than 80% of scientists in the UK wanted the country to remain in the EU. As well as easy access to the best European talent, the “remain” scientists argue that the EU provides a much-needed source of funding.

  • How does being in the EU impact on scientific research?

Although the UK contributes more cash overall to EU than it gets back, in science the sums are reversed.

The UK paid nearly £4.5bn to the EU research budget between 2007 and 2013 but won back more than £7bn over that same period. And while EU funding was only 3% of the UK's total research spend in that time (in among industrial R&D, government departments and charities, among others), it is vital money for universities, where it represented around 16% of their total research income.

The UK is good at winning EU research funds - according to Dr Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, it surprises most people to know that almost a fifth of the money sent to the UK from the EU is for scientific research.

  • What impact would leaving the EU have?

At University College London, Professor Polina Bayvel runs a world-leading research group in optical communications and is ambivalent about EU membership.

She recognises the importance of EU funds, for example, but says that the UK would still be in a good position to apply for and win this money if the country left the EU, in the same way countries like Switzerland and Israel do. And she adds that British universities would remain attractive to European scientists, because we have such high-quality institutions here.

She told ITV News she wasn’t at all worried that the flow of researchers to her lab would dry up if the UK left the EU - she collaborates around the world already (it is the nature of modern scientific research) and she would continue to collaborate whatever the Britons decided about the EU.

There are many unknowns about the future of British science. Credit: PA

The post-Brexit future for British science is full of unknowns. All the relationships our country has with European research funding institutions would need to be re-negotiated, for example. Whether or not those negotiations end up favourably for our scientists - who knows?

Visa restrictions would come into force for scientists wanting to come and work in the UK and, although some European researchers would not be put off by that, no doubt others wouldn’t want to spend time on tedious paperwork when they could easily find positions in top universities in Germany or Sweden instead.

Add to that the reduction in opportunities for British scientists who want to spend time working in Europe. Then there are also many multi-million pound scientific facilities across Europe - the kinds of expensive research instruments that no government can afford by themselves - which could become out of bounds for British researchers.

It's unlikely that science will be a high priority for most people in the UK voting to leave or remain in June’s referendum. But their choices will have a critical influence on whether or not the UK remains at the top of the world's intellectual league.