Brexit: an academic nightmare

Tom Carter argues that EU funding is vital to British academic institutions and voting out will lead to their intellectual impoverishment

Ella Baron

Saints dominated early medieval Europe. They had the power to heal the sick and punish the sinful. They were judge, doctor and patron all in one. However, our knowledge of this phenomenon is woefully incomplete, something which Oxford professor Bryan Ward-Perkins is trying to change, in collaboration with colleagues from as far away as Warsaw and as a close to home as Reading. Ultimately, he aspires to create an online searchable database of all the obscure European saints that existed before 700 AD, accessible to any member of the public.

Yet, none of this would have been possible without funding to the tune of €2.5 million over five years from the European Research Council. Indeed, this project is just one of the more than 5,000 projects funded by the ERC since 2007. In amongst the grandstanding about sovereignty and the free trade debates, it is easy to forget the impact Brexit would have on academia.

Suffice to say, the EU currently plays a fundamental role in supporting UK universities, providing 16 per cent of its total research funding. Furthermore, the UK gets considerable bang for its buck: whilst it contributes just over 11 per cent to the EU budget, its academics were awarded 15.5 per cent (£5 billion) of the available money from the FP7, the EU’s last seven year research spending programme.

The key question is how to secure funding for future academic research, especially if Britain leaves the EU. Organisations supporting Brexit like UKIP Students are optimistic, arguing that leaving the EU would allow the UK to increase university funding using the money saved from stopping contributions to Brussels. In addition, Brexit campaigners suggest that it would be relatively easy to buy back into EU research programmes through bilateral deals, such as those enjoyed by Switzerland and Norway.

These suggestions have been ridiculed by ‘Scientists for EU’, a group set up to make the scientific case for remaining and supported by notable figures like Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. The group’s Programme Director Dr Mike Galsworthy points out that Britain would not have an automatic entitlement to buy back into the EU Science programme, and suggests that there could potentially be substantial difficulties in doing so. He cites the example of Switzerland, which was prevented from competing for 70 per cent of the nearly €80 billion on off er in the EU’s current research programme, Horizon 2020, after it voted to restrict migration from the EU and thus violated the EU principle of free movement.

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Moreover, the UK government’s record on science funding is mixed. The Chancellor’s commitment to real terms protection of the Science budget in the 2015 Spending Review was met with comparative sighs of relief from the academic community. They had feared a repeat of 2010, when funding was frozen in cash terms, or worse. In such a context, the idea that a government committed to considerable further public spending cuts would prove the panacea to the academic community’s funding woes is far-fetched.

Of course, the success of academic research depends not only on funding, but also on being stimulated by the right intellectual culture. The UK’s research success suggests that such a culture currently exists in the UK, enabling the country to produce 15.9 per cent of the world’s most highly cited scientific research articles whilst only accounting for 3.2 per cent of its research expenditure.

Many academics see this culture as under threat from Brexit, arguing that it would stop intellectual cross-fertilisation with the rest of Europe. They point out that it would threaten UK participation in programmes like Erasmus, which has enabled more than 200,000 UK students and 20,000 university academics to study at European universities. UK scientists would no longer be able to influence European science policy on the same scale, whilst non-UK students and researchers would be discouraged from working in a UK weakened by funding and cut off from Europe.

It is no wonder, then, that the academic community are anti-Brexit. It could only lead to their intellectual impoverishment.