20 Aug 2015   |   Viewpoint

Life scientific: the view from outside the EU

How might its science be affected if the UK were to leave the EU? Science|Business asked some researchers from non-EU countries for their perspectives

Science groups in the UK have nailed their colours to the EU flag ahead of an upcoming referendum vote on whether to remain in the EU or not.

At the end of last month, Universities UK, a body representing 133 institutions, launched a campaign to galvanise scientists’ support and protect the UK’s £1.2 billion annual share of European research funding, saying membership of the European Union has an overwhelmingly positive impact on the UK’s world-leading universities, enhancing university research and teaching.

Crucially, if the UK were to leave the EU it would no longer be able to exert any influence on the European research agenda, say scientists who want the UK to remain a member.

However, campaigners in favour of UK withdrawal note that EU research funding is available to non-members and the UK could negotiate a deal to maintain access to programmes including Horizon 2020, if it left the EU.

For some fresh perspectives, Science|Business asked researchers from non-EU countries to share their experiences of making it in EU research as outsiders.

Professor Hans-Jörg Trenz of the ARENA Centre for European Studies at Oslo University said that in the case of Norway, the country does have influence on EU research agendas. “These are not decided in governmental negotiations – where Norway is, of course excluded – but in consultations chaired by the European Commission, where representatives from Norwegian institutions - the Norwegian Research Council for example - are involved,” Trenz said.

“In Britain’s case, it all depends, of course, on the particular arrangement the country may seek with the EU after a possible exit,” Trenz noted. “The British government could also decide to opt out of research policies completely, while Norway – through the European Economic Area agreements – has decided to participate. This is all completely open,” said Trenz.

Gal Richter-Levin, head of the Institute for the Study of Affective Neuroscience, University of Haifa in Israel said, “As a scientist, and purely from a scientific point of view, I know I would have preferred if Israel was a full member and not an associate country.”

For Richter-Levin it is not just the level of actual influence an Israeli scientist could have on the programme, it is also that it is difficult as an Israeli to initiate research groups once calls are announced. “It could be that this would be different for UK scientists because with Israelis, it is not only our status within the EU but also the political atmosphere around us.”

For UK scientists this may be less of an issue. “But if I was to choose as a UK scientist, I would vote for remaining within the EU as a full member,” Richter-Levin said.

Successful years

Lino Guzzella, President of ETH Zurich, said Switzerland can look back on some successful years as an associate member of the European Research Area. Although it does not belong to the EU the country was a full participant in the Seventh Framework research programme.

“In particular, our participation in highly competitive EU research programmes, such as the European Research Council (ERC) grants, proved to be very rewarding,” Guzzella said.

However, the situation changed last year after a referendum imposing quotas for immigration into Switzerland was passed. Following this, the EU has signalled that it will not continue all bilateral research agreements. “If Switzerland and the EU don’t find a solution by the end of 2016, we run the risk of being reduced to the status of a third country,” said Guzzella.

This would effectively mean Switzerland could not access EU research grants. “This would limit our influence on the direction of the EU research agenda and render our participation in ERC programmes difficult. For obvious reasons, this would be detrimental for Swiss universities and limit our possibilities to cooperate with our partner universities in the EU,” Guzzella noted.

For Dominique Arlettaz, Rector of the University of Lausanne, it is difficult to compare exactly the Swiss and UK situations. “The only thing I can tell you is that the really important points to think about are: Can Swiss researchers have access to ERC grants and can Swiss students take part in the Erasmus student exchange programme? If Switzerland is not an associate member of Horizon 2020 after 2016 the answers to these two questions will be negative. This would be very bad for our researchers and [send] a very negative signal to our students,” Arlettaz said.

Influencing decisions

Being outside, as an ‘observer’, puts you in a weak position, says Peretz Lavie, President of Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology. Decisions made on the continent will continue to affect research in the UK.

“Let me give you an example. There’s a view from some European countries - those which don’t do so well in winning ERC grants - that successful institutes should be [blocked] from the ERC competitions for a few years, in the interest of levelling the playing field. I think the ERC should be run by one criterion only: excellence. I wish we could have more say, more influence, in these discussions,” said Lavie.

“When it comes to Horizon 2020, Israel, and my institute, contributes evaluators, but we played no part in the main decision-making process behind the programme,” Lavie added.  

The Turkish company SUASIS Underwater Systems, is involved in two EU research projects and Tuncay Akal, director, says that while personally he hopes the UK remains part of the EU, outside the EU there is no lack of influence for non-members. “There’s no discrimination ….We have some say on the direction of research. The Research Council of Turkey talks to our scientists and collects research proposals,” Akal said. Even so, “I hope one day we become a member of the EU,” Akal added. 

Guðmundur Óli Hreggviðsson, a life and environmental sciences researcher at the Icelandic company Matís Ltd is phlegmatic, saying, “Here in Iceland, we can’t complain. We’re doing fine. Of course we have no say in most of the laws the EU makes, but when it comes to research, I think we’re on equal footing: we have Icelandic representatives sitting on all the committees. I’ve coordinated a few EU research projects and have not found it hard to create [international] teams.”

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