Colin Campbell: See how EU funds benefit scientists and UK

A George Osborne discovers, the UK benefits from financial support for research from EU funds. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

A George Osborne discovers, the UK benefits from financial support for research from EU funds. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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IN THE latest part of our series on Scotland’s future, Professor Colin Campbell reveals the support Scottish researchers get from Europe

With our country now focused on 23 June and the impending EU referendum, it would seem that we cannot escape the tsunami of information cascading our way. One of the main issues for most is that the information we do get is somewhat contradictory, to say the least. For anyone to be able to make an informed decision there needs to be a robust debate that concentrates on the facts. Facts and evidence are at the heart of science, but science is not always about facts and evidence.

Our collaborative approach has meant significant advances in science and how we deploy it, with and for society

Prof Colin Campbell

The scientific community has to be realistic; there are numerous issues high on the political agenda and science and research is only one of the factors needed to be taken into consideration. We have seen this in the debate about genetically modified crops and will probably see it more in discussions about other contested issues such as the use of pesticides and fracking. There are far more emotive subjects that will capture the nation’s interest such as immigration, sovereignty, currency and trade, meaning that science for some will be low on the list and for others not noteworthy at all. However, I seek to encourage everyone to take a moment to consider its importance when making their decision.

Science affects our daily lives bringing benefits to health, food, energy and the environment and is critical to our long-term economic growth. European science is number one in the world and allows us to be part of a highly competitive global competition. Europe is home to a large number of world-leading research and researchers; through this, a strong network has been created using funds from co-operative effort between member states. This brings a diversity of approaches, skills and disciplines to bear on the common problems we face such as climate change. The UK is undoubtedly at the centre of this base having developed and nurtured working collaborations with not only Europe but the rest of the world, thus keeping us at the forefront of scientific research.

The EU has always had a complex relationship with the scientific community but there can be little question over its role in shaping our current landscape. The UK continues to be one of the largest recipients of EU funding for research.

Under the European Union’s research and innovation seventhth framework programme of 2007 to 2013 (FP7), the value of competitive research funds won by the UK was €6.9 billion, from figures compiled by the Royal Society. This represents over 17.2 per cent of the total FP7 budget, second to Germany at 17.7 per cent. This compares with the investment in the EU’s research budget by the UK of approximately €5.4bn. Of this, €725 million came to Scotland in the shape of over 1,400 projects accounting for 11 per cent of the UK allocation, with €620m to research organisations and €83m to industry. Under FP7, the James Hutton Institute secured €8m funding.

One of the reasons for our success is the requirement of the FP7 and Horizon 2020 programmes for science excellence aligned to the creation of impact in addressing global societal challenges, a combination which underpins the operation of the Institute. Winning financial support from such sources levers the funding from the Scottish Government’s strategic research programme, and enables us to tackle international priorities such as the United Nations sustainable development goals, translating Scottish, UK and European research into a global context.

In 2015, Scottish research organisations were partners in eight of the 15 projects funded by the EU on aspects of food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine, maritime and inland water research, and the bioeconomy, three to the James Hutton Institute. Such a level of success illustrates the types of opportunities which are being taken by Scottish research organisations and in so doing promote Scotland as a centre of innovation and creativity.

The synergy of science excellence and winning competitive funding is an essential part of the long-term process of building the internationally leading scientific reputation of Scotland.

The high reputation of Scottish research is reflected in the invitations to Scottish researchers to participate in influential advisory groups for the European Union, with Scottish science aiding the development of policies for ensuring food safety, agricultural production and environmental quality for the benefit of Scotland and the wider European community.

It goes without saying that access to this amount of funding brings considerable benefits to the UK as a whole and as such engagement with policy development encourages a collaborative approach to the creation of impact from science.

To lead on from this, there has been much said about the impact of immigration on our country’s economy, but the reality is that EU citizens living in the UK contribute more than they take out, almost €5bn to be exact. The point here is that our scientific community is only as good as the people that are in it. The UK would not be able to boast about our scientific prowess had it not been for the significant contribution of the EU and international minds choosing our country as their home. One in ten academics is not a UK citizen, and it is important to remember that their contribution is not just the development of their research programmes within our institutes, these people will go on to develop and train homegrown talent. The James Hutton Institute is a good example of this with 16.2 per cent of our staff originating from the EU (not UK born).

Science is becoming much more of an outward facing, interconnected business and being part of the EU allows this important network to flourish. Freedom of movement is probably one of the most recognisable benefits of living within the EU. Without this, we run a serious risk of capping our scientific progress and in turn our economic growth. If we choose as a country to leave the EU, then we need to accept that with our current immigration policies the UK will struggle to maintain and promote ourselves as the best place in the world to do science.

Now this is not to say we could not go it alone. Leaving the EU would not result in the world as we know it ending. Should the UK vote to leave the EU, the actual process of leaving will not happen overnight. This will inevitably be a drawn out process and with the UK already fully signed up to the Horizon2020 programme which has another four years to go, we will remain a significant player. The UK would at the very least become an associate state like Norway, Iceland, Switzerland or even Israel, meaning the UK would remain a net beneficiary of the Horizon2020 programme if we remain competitive.

However, I think the most important question is, do we want to have to operate outside the EU? Yes, we could become an associate country – but this would only work providing our attempts are not challenged by the rest of the EU.

The fact is that we gain many benefits from having unrestricted access to these large funding streams and the UK, Scotland and the James Hutton Institute do exceptionally well from these. Our collaborative approach has meant significant advances in science and how we deploy it, with and for society. Science is the main hope for solving many of our ecological, environmental, technological and health problems. It must not be forgotten in the debate about our EU membership.

• Professor Colin Campbell is chief executive of the James Hutton Institute, a world-leading scientific organisation encompassing a distinctive range of combined strengths in land, crop, waters, environmental and socio-economic science. Visit www.hutton.ac.uk

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