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A positive case for Britain’s future in a reformed EU

Science Minister Jo Johnson yesterday told the Financial Times what a vote to leave the EU would mean for our status as a science superpower:

Anyone who wants to know whether we should leave the EU should speak to Boris. I mean, of course, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

This city by the Fens has been a centre of scholarship for more than 8 centuries, long before the EU and many of its member states even existed. Monks and scholars flocked here from Paris, Bologna and Salamanca in the Middle Ages and, over the years, our own benefited from reciprocal hospitality across Europe.

Today, these continental networks are deeper than ever and help explain why this university has more Nobel Prizes to its name - 92 - than any other institution. They also play a part in its success in turning research into good business. With more than 1,500 technology companies, employing nearly 60,000 people, it is the most successful innovation cluster in Europe.

The big question, then, for Boris is how much of this success is due to our membership of the EU? Let us be clear: Britain has been a science superpower since the dawn of the Enlightenment and our scientific temper will help us thrive either way. The issue, though, is whether we would be as strong as we could be, without the funding and the partnerships that we gain through the EU.

European research funding offers a good example of how the EU can get things right - and of how the UK benefits from a seat at the table when the rules are framed in Brussels. We have successfully argued for EU research money only to flow to where the best science is done, regardless of geography or pork barrel pressures. And because of the excellence of our research base, we end up winning an outsized slice of EU research programmes.

The UK puts in about 12% of all EU funding yet wins about 15% of research funding, making us one of the largest beneficiaries of EU science programmes. In the latest funding round, we have to date secured 15.4%, second only behind Germany.

Britain’s universities flourish under this system. Cambridge topped the list of EU universities for participations in the most recent funding programme. And Oxford, Imperial College London and University College London occupied the next three positions.

Some argue that non-EU countries also benefit from EU science. But there is a big difference. They may be part of the European Research Area but they do not sit at the table when the European Council or Parliament set rules or decide budgets.

Of course, British scientists will be able to call for support from the UK government. Indeed, since 2010 we have protected the science budget at a time of significant savings elsewhere. But we should not pretend that replacing these rich additional European funding streams would be easy.

To keep our knowledge factories winning Nobel Prizes, we must in addition recognise that research is rarely a solitary undertaking or even a narrowly national one. Around half of UK research publications now involve cross-border collaborations. And EU countries are among our most crucial partners, representing nearly half of our overseas collaborations. Free movement of people makes it easier for our universities to attract the best talent.

I am not suggesting that Brexit would reverse 8 centuries of progress, returning ‘Silicon Fen’ to marshland. But those who want Britain to leave the EU must explain how they will sustain the same levels of investment and the same depth of partnership under different circumstances.

A vote to leave would be a leap into the dark that would put our status as a science superpower at risk. That is why I will be joining Boris in making a positive case for Britain’s future in a reformed EU.


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