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Leaving the EU Will Hurt British Science

Victoria Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University.
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While London Mayor Boris Johnson is campaigning for an exit of Britain from the European Union, his brother Jo, a member of parliament and minister of state for universities and science, takes a rather different view. In a speech at the University of Cambridge on Thursday he argued that while Britain could “survive” outside of the EU, it would put Britain’s status as a “science superpower” at risk.

That’s a serious problem. If there is one thing that economics teaches us, it is that continued economic growth would not be possible without scientific advance. Across the economy, the majority of economic growth in the long run can be attributed to innovation, included in what economists call total factor productivity. And rather than being substitutes, public and private sector research and development are mutually reinforcing.

Economists Florence Jaumotte and Nigel Pain find, for example, that a 0.06 percentage point increase in the share of publicly funded research and development in gross domestic product boosts business sector R&D by over 7 percent and total patenting by around 4 percent. Looking at individual areas of research from agriculture to medicine, the rate of return to publicly funded scientific research falls within an impressive range of 20 percent to 67 percent.

The power of science to supercharge economic growth suggests that the economic consequences of Brexit ultimately boil down to one fundamental question: Would science be better or worse off if Britain were to leave the European Union?

Many U.K. scientists would seem to agree with Jo Johnson. According to Sir Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute and former president of the prestigious Royal Society, Britain's national science academy, “There is no question that science in the U.K. will be stronger in Europe than out of Europe.”

As in other sectors, scientists can also be divided on Brexit. Angus Dalgleish, a medical researcher at St George’s Hospital, University of London, and spokesperson for Scientists for Britain, recently suggested that “The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save.” This type of argument misses the point: Not only is it questionable whether the state could afford to compensate for lost EU science funding, particularly given that an EU exit could damage the wider British economy, actual spending on science isn’t all that matters. Just as important is the impact of every euro (or pound) spent.

Here, the benefits of international collaboration mean that the whole is more than the sum of its parts: Productivity is enhanced when countries work together rather than going it alone. Internationally co-authored research papers, for example, have a significantly greater impact than those written purely by scientists from the same country. In this sense, not only would leaving the European Union therefore hurt British science, it would also hurt wider European science by changing inhibiting the pooling of grant money and the mobility of scientists. 

Like the globalization of goods, the globalization of science has brought untold benefits. Building on projects such as Europe's nuclear research center CERN, the European Union has been in the process of creating a “European Research Area” to facilitate the circulation of researchers, ideas and technology. The aim is to boost cooperation, stimulate competition and improve resource allocation in science. Mike Galsworthy and Rob Davidson, write in the London School of Economics Brexit Vote Blog:

The EU science program has managed to network the European countries into a collaborative engine which serves as a hub of science in the wider world… Twenty-first century science often has to go big to go small and increase the resolution of our understandings and capacity. Developing new nano-materials or discovering ever-rarer particles often requires more expensive machinery to establish more extreme conditions. In health, identifying ever-smaller contributory effects (e.g. multiple interacting genes in disease development) requires ever larger sample sizes of patients. Increasingly complex models require larger collections of expertise and shared resources.

For a small island, Britain has historically punched above its weight when it comes to pushing the scientific frontier. With just under 1 percent of the world’s population, the U.K. is home to 3.3 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and produces almost 7 percent of the world’s scientific output and 15 percent of the most highly cited papers. However, this does not mean that Britain can afford to go it alone. Britain is already benefiting from the internationalization of the scientific system, with an increase in internationally co-authored papers to 50 percent today (four out of five of these involving collaborations with European partners) from only 15 percent in 1981. That is ahead of the U.S.’s 33 percent today. 

More is at stake than money. Replacing European science grants with British government grants will not repair the damage to the science base of the economy should Britain decide to leave the EU.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Victoria Bateman at vb295@cam.ac.uk

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net