15. Is Brexit really bad for UK science?
Atmospheric pollution and climate change are two research areas that are unlikely to be affected by Brexit.
The referendum on whether the UK remains in the European Union ("Brexit") is due to take place on 23 June 2016. The debate so far has been characterised by both sides setting out extreme projections in support of their arguments. It is as if the truth is determined by who has the best lies and serves to alienate people from the political system. Regarding the effects of Brexit, several reports have emerged suggesting potential damage to UK science. The true situation, however, is more complicated.
In or out of the EU?
I should say from the beginning that I do not support the EU from many perspectives, but if I felt that science would be significantly affected I would certainly reconsider.
The arguments in favour of remaining can be read here. In summary, the main arguments are that because the UK is a scientifically successful nation, additional funding is received from Brussels. This extra funding keeps UK science in the global spotlight. Nonetheless, I believe the fears of Brexit are overblown because we can apply to be part of EU programmes just as scientists from Switzerland and Norway have in the past.
Another argument is that importing scientists from the rest of Europe is easier while we remain part of the EU. By contrast, many scientists, myself included, have worked in the USA and other countries without effective impediment. The point is that such scientists supply skills that are needed, and outside the EU we could apply the same principles to bring into Britain anybody with the right skills. The UK would then be less dependent on skills from a specific geographic region.
Many good reasons have been put forward as to why Brexit would not be bad for UK science. For example, many countries that are not currently within the EU participate in EU projects but do so at their own expense. Also many scientific programmes such as climate change and environmental initiatives had already begun and continue outside the EU remit. Indeed, in many situations, not being part of the EU would mean that our scientists play a more significant role on global issues. For example, British scientists are reknowned for their contribution to scientific knowledge on climate change and it woud be inconceivable that a future EU would discuss the subject without UK involvement. In any case, scientific research is by its nature global in extent. Scientists collaborate with anyone who has relevant knowledge regardless of their country of origin, and that will not change under Brexit.
I can understand a cause of concern regarding a possible reduction of funding after Brexit in less important areas of research as it would then be more at the discretion of the UK government whether to cut funding levels. This, unfortunately, may indeed lead to a total cut in science funding. But if you're a scientist voting to remain, isn't it embarrassing to admit that your work is not of the highest calibre, or the highest relevance?
My Personal EU Research Experiences
Will the Horizon 2020 programme prove to be less bureaucratic than its predecessors?
I was involved in several EU research programmes and then in 2000-2003 I was the coordinator for the EU Framework 5 programme EuroSPICE. I fully appreciate that my experiences may be somewhat dated, but somehow I doubt it..... The EU programme has certainly changed over the years - the last "Framework" programme was F7, which finished in 2013, and the current research programme is "Horizon 2020", which will last until 2020.
At the time when we put EuroSPICE together, I was warned that EU programmes are useful to be part of, but not to "coordinate". The reason is simply the horrendous amount of bureacracy that is expected from the EU (sound familiar?). Nonetheless, at the time, I thought that coordinating a project would be a useful "managing experience", so I went ahead anyway.
After deciding the nature of the research programme and ensuring that it fitted within the Framework remit, the next step was to choose a project title. At the UK Met. Office we were interested in the influence of upper atmospheric chemistry (e.g. ozone) on climate and the converse, such as whether an ozone hole would occur in the Arctic. At the time, not many groups in Europe had the capacity to do this, so the programme was broadened to ensure a balance of nations. Also we needed a catchy title to succeed and at the time the "Spice Girls" girl band were popular, so we chose a name that added a bit of satirical humour. The words were manipulated to fit the acronym.
It was generally known that to get funding, you needed a budget of order a million Euros and have major scientific countries involved together with a spattering of minor countries. This is regardless of the scientific justification. So we simply manipulated the goals of the EuroSPICE to fit in. Germany was troublesome, as their national rules insisted on employing a PhD student to "support" the trained scientist. [Where was my "support scientist I wondered.] So we had to manipulate the figures to make sure that Germany didn't get more money than say the UK. In the end, we had groups from the UK (Met Office and University of Reading), France, Germany and Finland. We were also able to have a useful contribution from Argentina, although of course they received no funding.
Another complication was that EU funding required matching funding from elsewhere. The way this was done in the Met. Office was simply to shuffle money around. In other words, the extra funding I brought in for my group did not lead to an increase in resources for my group. My group resources stayed the same, and the income was put in a general Met. Office slush fund for spending on research elsewhere in the organisation.
Writing the Proposal
To receive funding in the first place required completing a horrendously complicated form detailing what we were going to do month by month over 36 months, if I recall correctly. I found this daunting in the sense that, if we knew exactly what we were going to do, it wouldn't be called research. So much of the proposal was really a test as to how good we were at writing science fiction. That aside, the "science" was easy. The difficult bit was the management aspects of the programme. Scientific management is really not that difficult when you are dealing with motivated individuals. In any case, if one group decides to take July off on holiday before the reports were written, there is absolutely nothing I could do about it!
Some of the aspects of the management were regarding management tools. In practice these were quite trivial but they were technical. they consisted of mapping out information in a preset format. I can't even remember the jargon now. So I had to learn the jargon, prepare the trivial diagrams, and once the proposal was accepted, get back to my real job.
The proposal also required an assessment of the impact of the research on the economy. I kid you not! Just like the current debate on the economic impact of Brexit, you could get any answer you want according to the assumptions you make. For example, we could have said that if climate change causes serious ozone depletion, then we could get an ozone hole the size of the northern hemisphere and all living creatures except cockroaches will die! So GDP will drop by 100%! Obviously you can't write that in a proposal, so I had to keep it sensible.
Unfortunately, my colleagues didn't help much on the economic impacts. I don't blame them really. We're not qualified to write about economics. The annoying thing was that the Eurocrats could have just read the garbage we wrote on economics and regurgitated it to the European parliament or wherever. Where was the added value in that? It just happened that there was a BBC programme on salmon farming in the week or two before the proposal was due in. So I made up a cock and bull story about how we need to predict UV levels to protect the salmon farming industry. In the sea, UV doesn't penetrate very deeply, so the fish can simply swim to lower levels to avoid UV problems. In a salmon farm, the stocking density is high so the fish can't avoid UV and an increase in UV will affect the fish systematically.
The problem with these proposals is that they can be a bit of a lottery. Proposals are marked section by section and the highest marks were funded subject to some balancing of proposal topics. So my ignorance of the economic impacts of my own research might have been fatal. This is not really what researchers should be asked to do. Either I'm a scientific manager and I'm paid a lot more to answer the "difficult" questions or some manager should be drafted in to write the material in which we have no expertise.
All went well at the proposal stage and the project was funded. Eventually we started, and of course the timing of events needed juggling. Brussels demanded progress reports every quarter with major reports every year. Hundreds of pages of material was sent to Brussels in quintuplet. We made sure, under advisement from experienced coordinators that Brussels must not know about delays. If they do, they will spend in inordinate amount of time interfering in the project and nothing will get done. So we fiddled the reports a bit to make sure it looked as if we were doing what we said we were going to. Despite the hundreds of pages to Brussels, though, we didn't get a peep out of them. Not a peep! No questions, no congratulations, nothing! What I jokingly refer to as write only memory. [For the slower-witted reader: data that can be written not read!]. In the final months of the programme, I was spending most of my time preparing reports and very little time actually doing research.
A summary of the project successes is included here. EuroSPICE is only a small part of that newsletter, but in any case it is somewhat technical and need not be discussed further. The main thing for me to have communicated is the laborious process by which funds were obtained from the EU. As noted above, I suspect nothing much has changed. The main thing is that in going from one Framwork programme to the next or I suspect the last Framework programme to Horizon 2020, there will have been a lot of commonalities. However, there will also have been sufficient differences to put the coordinators on a time-consuming learning curve.
By contrast, I have always found government research (both in the UK and US) relatively devoid of time consuming proposal-writing. somebody at some point has made the decision that you are worthy of running your own research programme, so it makes sense just to let you get on with it. Certainly the occasional meeting to assess progress or future direction doesn't hurt and is even welcome. Universities are not too dissimilar, with permanent staff allowed to get on with their research in peace (academic tenure). Also, if professors need additional resources they can apply to research councils. This requires significant proposal writing, certainly, but the EU has a whole is an all together higher order of magnitude.
Pounds and Euros
It is certainly good for UK science to be able to receive additional funds from the EU, but I wonder whether the additional resources to get that funding has been properly accounted for. Sometimes, funds are lost in the cracks. For example, in the first year of EuroSPICE, as a coordinator the Met Office received the money in Euros paid into a sterling bank account. So the money was converted first to sterling then back again to Euros to pay the other groups. All this took place by the Met Office financial section apparently without murmur. So the bank was doing nicely out of our programme. It was getting 2% one way and then almost 2% back again, so we were losing almost 4%. On one accasion the pound was varying quite quickly and we lost about 5% of the total funds just due to financial transactions. That meant in practice that our 20% cut of the EU funds was reduced without me knowing to 15%. After I caused a stink about that, the Met Office opened a Euro bank account, although they may have been thinking about it anyway. I do wonder, though, how many years of losses like that the Met Office suffered.
Scientifically, I like to think that EuroSPICE was a great success. It wasn't exactly how I would have originally wanted it to be but I think that is not an advantage of the EU funding per se but rather the tendency of scientists to make the best of whatever is available. The project helped to cement some valuable working relationships which continued another 10 years to my inadvertent retirement. Over those years the ex-EuroSPICE boys and girls had a great camaraderie! Perhaps that was as a result of experiencing a common suffering at the hands of the EU, rather like survivors in disasters! Nonetheless, I do also believe that the individual groups might have continued independently with just as much success without EU funding. So I remain unconvinced of the potential damage to UK science if we were to leave the EU.
Article initially prepared 30 May 2016
Website revised by John Austin, 30/5/2016. © Enigma Scientific Publishing, 2016.