By a range of measures, the UK is one of the world’s leading scientific nations, both in terms of fundamental and applied research. It is irrefutable that the UK’s research excellence was established long before the inception of European integration in 1952. As European integration has developed, the UK has retained its leading position in the face of growing competition from around the world. Against this background, we have sought to examine the relationship between the UK’s EU membership and its world-leading capability in science.
The overwhelming balance of opinion made known to this Committee from the UK science community valued greatly the UK’s membership of the European Union. Science is a major component of the UK’s membership of the EU. Nearly one fifth (18.3%) of EU funding to the UK is spent on research and development (R&D). In the period 2007–13, EU Framework Programme 7 funding for science and research in the UK amounted to 3% of the UK’s total expenditure on R&D. We heard from universities that this funding is equivalent to having another Research Council.
The ease with which talented researchers can move between EU Member States and the UK, the EU’s fertile environment for research collaboration, harmonised regulations, access to EU research facilities and the availability of substantial funding for research combine to make EU membership a highly prized feature of the research ecosystem in the UK. Furthermore, the UK plays a leading role in the development of EU policies and decision-making processes that relate to science and research.
While the UK science community was enthusiastic about EU membership, we have uncovered some qualifications. We heard mixed views on the impact of EU regulations. The benefits of harmonisation were widely recognised but some specific areas, such as genetic modification and clinical trials, were highlighted as causing UK business and research to be disadvantaged compared to competitors outside the EU.
Many assertions to this inquiry about the UK’s success in winning EU research funding conflated performance in securing Framework Programme funds (the last being FP7) with the overall level of EU funding for R&D in the UK. The UK’s strong science base makes the UK one of the top performing nations in the EU where scientific excellence determines success in funding competitions. But that is only part of the picture. When the total level of R&D funding is considered, the use of structural funds for R&D in less prosperous parts of the EU shifts the distribution of funding away from the UK, moving this country down the funding league table. It is important to note, however, that Framework Programme funds and structural funds serve different purposes.
Many businesses were unwilling to give evidence to our inquiry so our findings in this area are based on smaller volumes of evidence than for the academic community. Nevertheless, there are indications that, overall, UK businesses are less engaged than academics in EU R&D. We have no definitive explanation for this pattern, but EU bureaucracy and a relatively low level of support to business from the UK Government were cited as parts of the picture.
Access to many research infrastructures is available to non-EU Member States in continental Europe as well as to countries outside Europe. We found there to be occasional confusion with regards to which infrastructures are EU-managed and which are European in nature. Major research facilities such as CERN, for instance, are not part of EU scientific infrastructure, while others, such as the ITER nuclear fusion facility, are. Although not a pre-requisite for involvement in research infrastructure, EU membership may facilitate influence and provide platforms to collaborate.
The scientific advisory system in the EU is in a state of flux as it transitions from testing the model of a single Chief Scientific Adviser to the recently created Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM). The SAM is at a formative stage and its effectiveness is untested. We are, however, optimistic about its potential. The development of the SAM will be critical, as defective scientific advice will lead to inadequate policy and legislation being produced at the EU level.
The following chapter sets out our detailed conclusions and recommendations.