13 May 2015   |   Viewpoint

Scientists can help put the brake on Brexit

There are great UK-EU science stories buried under all the one-sided anti-Brussels spin and now is the time to tell them, says Mike Galsworthy, researcher turned political activist

As sales pitches go, the one calling EU research a boon for UK scientists sounds straight-forward. 

The UK may pay for nearly 12 per cent of the overall EU budget, but it extracts some 16 per cent of the competitively-awarded science funding. Five of its universities, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, University College London and Imperial College London, are among the top ten recipients.

Membership of the European Space Agency has has led to a boom in the UK’s satellite industry. Meanwhile, Manchester University physicists discovered the “wonder material” graphene in 2004 and have since built a team of 126 academic and industrial research groups with €1 billion from the EU to help take it out of the lab. 

Now is the time to tell people about these things.

“It’s not being communicated,” says Mike Galsworthy, a visiting researcher at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “It needs to be addressed and not just in reports from places like the Royal Society.”

There is a reason for his urgency in that the Conservative Party, which last week returned to power, has pledged a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017.

In response, Galsworthy and his colleague Rob Davidson quickly built Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as a website, all registered under a “Scientists for EU” banner. To date they have attracted over 3,400 followers.  

Scientists have been invited to share their stories on what EU funding has done for them. Many have.

Lisa Glaser, a postdoc in physics at the School of Mathematical Sciences in Nottingham tweeted, “Both my PhD and my Post Doc were financed through European Research Council grants. So without Europe I might not be in science.”

The exercise is something like “catharsis”, Galsworthy said. “It hit a nerve with people who were feeling voiceless on the issue. Good news stories on science certainly don’t come from the UK media where often all you get is Rupert Murdoch-backed [spin].”

EU referendum

The current call to arms for researchers might not have happened so quickly.  Polling in advance of last week’s election predicted the Conservative and Labour parties were neck-and-neck. A Labour-led government would have meant an in-out referendum was off the menu – at least for five years.

But while others were sitting around “complaining” when the Conservatives won a majority, Galsworthy shot into action. By the next day, he had built an advocacy machine.

Were the UK to vote itself out of the EU club, EU research money would not automatically disappear. In fact many of the most vocal Eurosceptics in the UK say all major research ties would remain, in an arrangement much like Switzerland, which does very well in EU research.

But the UK would become a hostage to changing winds in Brussels. Last year Swiss scientists found themselves frozen out of Horizon 2020 for reasons that had nothing to do with research and everything to do with politics. Switzerland’s referendum on immigration did not go down well with Eurocrats who accused the Swiss of violating EU laws on mobility.

A flurry of diplomatic repair work from the Swiss re-opened the door to Horizon 2020, but only by a crack. Switzerland’s scientists will be granted money from Horizon 2020’s ‘Excellent Science’ pillar, but not from the ‘Industrial Leadership’ or ‘Societal Challenges’ pillars.

Finding allies

Galsworthy thinks his movement can be a corrective for some of the “destructive and confrontational” voices in a Conservative party divided between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. 

Will it develop beyond a social media campaign? “I’ve no idea whatsoever,” he said. “We just cooked up a logo and website last Friday.”

Whether the group will fundraise and organise advocacy events or not, Galsworthy wants to keep it true to its origins. “I don’t want this to be something we hand over to a popular scientist figure: I want this to be a clear grassroots organisation,” he said.

To promote the campaign, Galsworthy has contacted ex-EU chief science adviser Anne Glover and ex-EU Commissioner for Research Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who have both re-tweeted the group’s messages.

Another potential ally is Jo Johnson, brother of London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has been appointed Minister for Universities and Science in the UK. Although he has few statements of record on the topic of science and research, Galsworthy thinks he has seen him display the right instincts on remaining a member of the EU.

“We’ve got to rise up and say if you're a pro-EU champion for us, we’ve got you backed to the hilt,” said Galsworthy. “You won’t be a lone voice in a pack of Eurosceptic wolves.”

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