A campaign backed by more than 6,000 British scientists to stay in the European Union was launched on Friday (9 October), ahead of a British referendum due on the issue by 2017.
So far, the question of a possible Brexit from the EU has been dominated by trade, jobs and migration.
But Dr Mike Galsworthy, programme director of the “Scientists for the EU” group, hopes that will change as the repercussions further down the line – such as for scientific research and development – become apparent.
“It is very exciting to see the science community speaking up passionately about Britain’s future in the world. Whilst Eurosceptic voices are currently dominated by climate change sceptics, our scientists have a vision of Britain as an innovative team-player serving our citizenry by proactively tackling challenges of health, energy and environment collaboratively with the rest of Europe,” he said.
The group Scientists for the EU was initially created informally on Facebook, in the wake of the British general election in May, which saw the Conservatives returned with a slim 12-seat majority – and with it, the pledge to hold an in/out referendum on the country’s 42-year membership of the EU by the end of 2017.
So far, the group has 6,400 members, and hopes to push that beyond the 10,000 mark following Friday’s launch.
The campaign will see its new website, www.scientistsforeu.uk, go live, and with it the announcement of a raft of prominent scientists on the campaign’s advisory board.
Among them are the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. He said, “The EU is not only a single market, but a community of mobile talent and shared expertise. It facilitates the transnational cooperation that will be crucial in surmounting the challenges of the coming decades. It strengthens the whole of Europe – especially the continent’s potential as a ‘powerhouse’ for advanced technology – if we stay together.”
The board contains scientists in all three major UK political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat, at least two former MPs, as well as the ex-chief scientific advisor to the European Commisison president, Professor Dame Anne Glover.
Galsworthy told euractiv.com that a Brexit would be “a triple hit for the UK.
“Firstly, in terms of international collaboration papers, which get more citations. The UK is currently in pole position in terms of citations per pound invested.
“Secondly, by affecting immigration. British science has partly been driven by the UK’s attraction to the science community globally.
“And thirdly in policy-making. The UK is currently the largest player in the EU science community, and that EU science community has more output in terms of papers than the US.”
Other, less immediately obvious issues include a cut in eligibility for research grants, that would affect post-doctorate students studying and teaching whilst starting familes, and their affect on British standards, which tend to be adopted as EU standards.
“Right now, the UK is very attractive. Everyone in the EU can apply to work in research labs here, which are among the best in the world.
“The nightmare scenario is a vote for ‘Brexit’ driven by an anti-immigration sentiment, leading the UK government to impose quotas,” said Galsworthy, pointing the Swiss experience of a February 2014 referendum, aimed at limiting immigration through quotas and permits.
The narrow victory of that poll – by just 0.6% – saw the EU demote Switzerland’s role in its 80-billion euro Horizon 2020 science programme.
The British government, under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, has yet to set a date for the referendum, as negotiations are ongoing over possible opt-outs for the UK over the commitment to “ever closer union”, and the rights of migrants to claim benefits.
London also wants greater powers for the non-euro currency member states, such as Britain.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to campaigning for a vote to stay in the EU.
A surge in Eurosceptism has firmly pushed the European Union up the political agenda in Britain.
The ruling Conservatives promised an in/out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if they won the UK elections in May, placing Europe's future at the centre of the debate.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would campaign for the UK to stay, but only if the EU was able to reform, stating that “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union.”
>> Read our LinksDossier: The UK's EU referendum: On the path to Brexit?
- 17-18 Dec 2015: EU summit with British reform proposals.
- 2016: Likely year for British EU referendum.
- 2017: Self-imposed end of year deadline for British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold his in/out referendum.