New Scientist

A Disaster for European Science

Right-wing, anti-European Union parties could fracture collaborations.

A man walks past a defaced UKIP poster on May 22, 2014 in Sheffield, England.
A defaced UKIP poster on May 22, 2014 in Sheffield, England.

Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Politics has become a strange place. In this week’s European Parliament elections, many right-wing parties, some of them extreme, are forecast to do well. It is likely that, for the first time, the elected body of the European Union will be stuffed to the gunnels with people who would rather it didn’t exist at all.

Prominent among them is Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party. Already a member of the European Parliament, Farage’s main aim is to get Britain out of the European Union. Its freedom of movement rules have caused an influx of migrant workers, which has served as the backdrop to UKIP’s rise. While Britain remains within the E.U., it is impossible to stem this “tide,” Farage says, and withdrawal is the only solution.

While political scientists watch this narrative unfold with fascination, natural scientists in the United Kingdom should do so with alarm; Farage could be a disaster for them.

That’s because we have a lot to lose. In global terms, the U.K. punches above its weight in science. Although our population makes up just 1 percent of the global total, scientists here publish 16 percent of the world’s most-cited research papers. E.U. policy is to “encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding … on the basis of scientific excellence.” This means that British scientists get a disproportionate amount of money. For every pound contributed to the research pot, Britain gets approximately 1.40 pounds back.

If we were to withdraw from the E.U., we would lose access to the source of much of this funding: the European Research Council. British scientists would also lose influence over the research agenda and would be unable to control the distribution of funding across research areas. Just as importantly, they would hemorrhage collaborators.

The days of the lone scientist are largely gone. Collaboration is now vital and nearly ubiquitous. More than one-third of the papers published in high-quality journals are the result of such links. E.U.-funded science projects require the involvement of at least three different E.U. member or associate states. Ousted from Europe, British scientists would be out in the cold. We know this because it has already happened to scientists in Switzerland, a non-E.U. state that until recently enjoyed access to E.U. research funding.

At the end of February, Swiss voters rejected a deal that would allow Croatians free movement across the country’s borders. It was a result of campaigning by the Swiss People’s Party, which is Euro-skeptical and wants strict limits on immigration, just like UKIP. Limiting the movement of people from the E.U.’s newest member state didn’t comply with E.U. principles, so Switzerland was stripped of its “associate member” status.

Associate members benefit from almost full participation in E.U. programs, including research projects funded from the E.U. pot.

The latest set of E.U.-funded projects is known as Horizon 2020, which has about 65 billion pounds (about $110 billion) to allocate over the next six years. Swiss researchers are now excluded from receiving any of its grants. Before February, Swiss students could get grants to work in labs anywhere in Europe under the E.U.’s Erasmus program—not any more. Switzerland is now a “third country,” on a par with the United States and Japan.

Researchers report that, as a result, Switzerland has lost international competitiveness. There is a brain drain as senior researchers head to countries where they can access E.U. funds. Young researchers are also leaving—many of them rely on the kudos of prestigious E.U. grants to advance their careers. Swiss scientists are being shed as collaborators. Christian Sengstag, head of research at the University of Basel, said in April that the top candidates for research jobs “will think twice before accepting a position in Switzerland.”

Could the same thing happen in the U.K.? It is entirely possible.

The UKIP surge is widely seen as a protest against traditional politics. It looks likely that it will win more seats in the European Parliament than any other British party. Much of UKIP’s support has come from those who usually vote Conservative, a situation that caused U.K. prime minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, to commit to a referendum on E.U. membership should he be re-elected in 2015.

The Conservatives’ main rival, Labour, has offered no such sop should they win power. However, there is always a danger that politicians will yield in the face of a popular movement. And, if U.K. voters can push UKIP onto the European scene, there is no reason to believe they won’t win a national referendum to quit the E.U.

The full process of withdrawal would take years, but the impact on science would be nearly immediate. British science would find itself in a similar position to Switzerland, assuming a similar stand over migration. It would have third-country status, and its researchers would be unable to apply for E.U. grants. We wouldn’t be completely without funds—the U.K.’s seven research councils invest around 3 billion pounds every year. But on the European stage, British scientists would suddenly find that they count for nothing.

There are fears that voter apathy will result in a low turnout. But we can be sure that the UKIP vote is not apathetic, and the result could be disastrous. The mainstream parties are unlikely to have much to celebrate; but for British researchers the result could be even gloomier if it becomes the first step to making U.K. science the biggest loser of all.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.