11 June 2016

Science and the Brussels money laundry

Science shows that there is more to the EU debate than migration and economics.

It is odd when, as soon as the call comes from Stockholm, Nobel prize winners emerge from the obscurity of their laboratories to become "elder statesmen" whose every utterance garners media attention, even when they stray far from their areas of research expertise. So it is hard to take their views on #Brexit, as laid down in the letter to The Telegraph, any more seriously than those of the rest of the scientific community. After all, Nobelists probably don't have to worry about the loss of those EU funds that they warned about.

The good thing about this intervention, though, is that it has provoked media coverage. It has even elicited a response from the Brexiteers who previously ignored what scientists have said. They clearly think that Nobel laureates are worth rebutting.

The "get us out of here" brigade are correct in stating that R&D funds from the EU are money from the UK, laundered through Brussels. But that laundering is important.

For a start, the UK's participation in European science brings a seat at the tables where they set the agenda for the EU's support for research and innovation. For example, a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on EU regulation of the life sciences shows how valuable that can be when it comes to bringing new technologies to the market. As the committee puts it: "Once medicines and implants and other technologies are approved under the EU system they can be sold across the EU."

Just as important, the Brussels laundromat means that the UK's money does not get spent on other things, or simply trousered in the cause of reduced taxes at home. So the statement from Vote Leave won’t wash, especially when it repeats the much dismissed "£350 million pounds sent to Brussels every week". In any case, isn’t the money we send to Brussels already earmarked for the NHS and all the other things the outers have promised to spend it on?

Science is one of those areas where the UK’s participation in the EU isn’t all migration, money and other petty self interests. Are we allowed to talk about the benefits we bestow on other countries? Yes, British science does gain something, and not just money, from being in the EU, but its presence also does much for countries that don’t have the budgets and history of backing researchers.

As the Nobel laureates put it: “Science thrives on permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimise barriers, and are open to free exchange and collaboration.”

British scientists can collaborate with whoever they like, EU or not, but it is harder for researchers from countries that do not have a long tradition of science, including picking up more than their fair share of Nobel prizes. By running schemes that encourage the flow of scientists and collaboration between those in different countries, the EU is a force for good, with scientists from the UK doing more than most in this ebb and flow of influence.

Collaboration won’t go away if the UK leaves the EU, but being outside the tent isn’t likely to do much for the part that British scientists play in this exchange. Shouting loudly from across the Channel will be no substitute for being in the scrum.

No one is saying that being in the EU's science system doesn't have its problems. The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee went into some of them in its recent report EU membership and UK science. (There will be a debate on this in the Lords on Wednesday 15 June.) But seeing the issue as simply a matter of money is silly. That's only a part of what the Nobel epistle was about. It is probably beyond the skills of Vote Leave to deal with the broader issues.