What would Brexit mean for science?

Some 150 top scientists from Cambridge signed a letter urging Britain to stay in the European Union. They say leaving the EU could be detrimental to British science.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
British physicist Stephen Hawking sits in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Aug. 29, 2012. Dr. Hawking has joined more than 150 top scientists in calling for Britain to stay in the European Union, saying that leaving would be 'a disaster for UK science and universities.'

Scientists from one of the United Kingdom’s top universities have joined calls for Britain to stay in the European Union.

The call arrived Wednesday in the form of a letter addressed to the editor of The Times, a London-based newspaper. It was signed by Stephen Hawking and 150 other top scientists in Cambridge, who cited concerns a British exit from the EU (dubbed Brexit) would be “a disaster for UK science.”

A referendum for the future of Britain's membership status in the EU is scheduled to be held before 2017. Recent poll trackers show 51 percent of the country favors remaining a member – with numbers swinging on a daily basis for the hotly contested issue.

Opponents of Brexit have cautioned that leaving the EU could place Britain at an economic disadvantage, saying that England would be less equipped to enter into financial and trade agreements without EU backing and that manufacturers could decide to leave the country.

Some of the scientists concerns are also economic. The signatories of the letter say British research institutes gain much from EU funding and access, according to the scientists. But they also say that leaving the EU could hamper British institutions ability to recruit scientific talent from member nations.

First, increased funding has raised greatly the level of European science as a whole and of the UK in particular because we have a competitive edge. Second, we now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here.

Britain is a competitive destination for European scientists and researchers, who enjoy free mobility to travel and work in any of the EU member states. Despite having only 0.9 percent of the world’s population, Britain leads the world in terms of global share of science researchers at 22.2 percent, according to The Guardian.

Britain is also a net receiver of EU funds for science and research projects. In 2007-2013, the UK gave 5.4 billion euros to the EU’s Research and Development program, according to the BBC, but in the same period gained 8.8 billion euros for in research grants and funds.

However, as the Cambridge group worries these funds and researchers would disappear with a Brexit, other scientific groups argue the state of UK science would be largely unaffected.

“Scientists for Britain,” a group of researchers that argue for a Brexit, refute the assertion funding for sciences would dwindle with an isolated England.

"The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save," Angus Dalgleish, a spokesman for the group told the BBC.

The Cambridge group cites Switzerland’s scientific transformation as a case-study for a UK post-Brexit.

Switzerland partially paid into the EU and had access to EU researchers and science grants. However, in January 2014, the Swiss people voted to stem the freedom-of-movement agreements for workers. In doing so, the country also limited the flow of European researchers and scientists and cut off access to some EU funds. The Cambridge group states the same could happen to the UK:

“Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing; and the free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics.”

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