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HoL Science and Technology Committee - Relationship between EU Membership and UK Science

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the Relationship between EU Membership and UK Science. Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 24 November 2015

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

2. We have not responded to all of the questions outlined in the Call for Evidence but instead have commented on the issues raised as they relate to geoscience in the UK and EU. It is worth noting that the points raised in this response are not a description of the consequences of the UK leaving the EU but rather potential risks and scenarios that could arise from leaving. The impact of many of these potential outcomes would be dependent on the terms put in place in the event of a ‘No’ vote and the new ongoing relationship with the EU which is established in its place. If these terms were particularly disadvantageous in the context of trade, freedom of movement and research funding then many of the concerns raised could come to pass.

3. Geoscience, in both in its research and industrial applications is an inherently cross-border discipline. The structure and composition of the landscape and subsurface transcends state borders and topography. For this reason, successful research and technical application of geoscience skills requires innovative approaches to funding and industrial collaboration across borders.

Impact on UK Research and Funding

4. We received a number of responses from our Fellows working in research and academia regarding their concerns about the impacts of leaving the EU on research funding, UK science and cross-border working.

5. Currently, science funding within the UK is considerably below the European average and that available in most other developed countries. Access to EU funds is making up for that to a significant extent. The enhanced collaboration across the EU, supported by the funding structures, generates significant inter-European competition that raises the level of research and supports the dissemination of best practices. Research programmes like Horizon 2020 allow us to compete on scale and impact with the USA, without which some UK research communities would be relatively isolated and lack capacity and impact. With the funding and the added benefit of English being the dominant language of research, the UK succeeds and in many instances can take leadership roles in European consortia.

6. A critical aspect of EU membership and UK science concerns human capital. There has developed a single European community of researchers, especially early career researchers who move around the EU university system. The networks that are supported by programmes such as FP7 and Horizon 2020 have created a community that more than rivals that of the USA. Incoming researchers from elsewhere in the EU help the UK to flourish scientifically by becoming part of the teams that are found in our research laboratories.

7. Many academics and researchers raised points about the significant loss of funding for UK science that would result from leaving the EU and the associated benefits that come from the EU funding models. For example, for one top 10 Earth Science department in the UK, the loss would be huge. They have regularly been securing projects of the order of €1million and also have joint-funded schemes for Junior Research and International Senior Fellowships. It is well-documented that the UK performs very well when competing for EU funding and the UK geoscience research community has a good track record in winning this funding, which forms a vital part of the geoscience research portfolio. Horizon 2020 provides a mechanism to do this without complex double- or multiple-jeopardy approaches via national agencies.

8. The breadth of programmes and the variety in emphasis on the EU funding programmes support a lot of UK science that would otherwise go unfunded via the current UK funding system. For example, the European Research Council (ERC) funds a lot of UK science that is of the very highest international standing and is seen to focus on more "risky" science and so allows new researchers to pursue novel projects. Research programs such as the Marie Curie fellowships are considered to be some of the most useful and productive because of their enhanced knowledge exchange and program of small workshops. These fellowships bring the cream of European young scientists to work in UK institutions and develop many collaborations with UK researchers that will continue for decades. It is not only European collaboration that is enhanced. EU programs such as the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) also encourage non-EU participation and so the benefits and impact are broadened even further through EU membership. The benefits to the UK in terms of maintaining a competitive edge to our university research and the knowledge exchange and commercialisation that flow from these programs would be very difficult to quantify, but are undoubtedly immense.

9. Significant funding has also been provided for regional geoscience surveys in the UK by the European Regional Development Fund (EDRF). Reports indicate that the bureaucracy involved in execution and auditing was very onerous yet the extent of independent monitoring of the resulting science was minimal.

10. One significant benefit to EU membership which would be problematic to replicate is the research frameworks that are inherently cross-border and are beyond the means of one country. One example of this is the collaboration over research into new wave theory, an intrinsic part of geophysics research. In the UK we currently have little or no capacity to do sophisticated experiments in wave theory. Many geophysicists and others working across a wide range of fields (including hydrocarbons exploration, communication, military applications, non-destructive testing, etc.) use science that depends on these theoretical advances, and in Europe there are sophisticated laboratories conducting experiments that are changing the way seismology and electromagnetics are used in geophysics. One of our respondents reported having an EU project that uses 15 PhD's to link theorists with wave laboratories across Europe. Without this kind of collaboration the UK would risk becoming irrelevant at the cutting edge of wave theory very quickly. This kind of longstanding research partnership is very easy to lose but would take some considerable effort to rebuild at some future date.

11. Aside from the partnerships that are set up as a direct result of EU funded or enabled collaboration, there are also a significant number of working agreements set up with European based institutions and organisations on the basis that they are regional or sector leaders in given areas of science. While these relationships and agreements would not be hampered directly by the removal of access to EU frameworks, they may be impeded by disadvantageous changes in the freedom of movement for EU citizens.

12. There are many additional positive effects that result from operating in an EU-wide research framework. The wider research community benefits considerably from the improved interoperability of data and infrastructure that comes from cross-border working, and associated technological advancements such as investment in e-infrastructure. Operating within an EU framework also aids the process of collaboration across borders and opens up avenues for research which might not otherwise be considered.

13. EU membership also facilitates the creation of intrinsically cross-border institutions and activities that require financial and organisational collaboration to develop infrastructure beyond the capacity of one country. A useful example of this is the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the University of East Anglia. Climate research is an inherently cross-border research theme that requires collaboration both across the EU and internationally. A large proportion of the centre’s income is via the EU and this in turn puts the organisation on an international footing that is beyond Europe. Because of this reach, the centre is able to do more wide-ranging, interesting and policy relevant research for the UK and internationally that would not be possible if the centre was bidding for funding through the current UK funding mechanisms. The Tyndall Centre is also now the Future Earth European Regional Centre for all of Europe (Future Earth being a new planet-wide coordinating body for global environmental change research). This is a significant leadership role which would not be possible if the UK was outside of the EU.

14. Beyond the risks around funding, there are also broader issues around freedom of movement and associated cultural shifts that could have a detrimental effect on the UK’s research sector. Leaving the EU would send a strong professional and cultural message to the UK’s international researchers and workers which may result in many deciding to leave. Many have written to us to say they would strongly reconsider their current residence in the UK in the event of a withdrawal from the EU, due to the impact on their professional work but also because of a perceived sense of alienation in the UK.

15. The experience in Switzerland, when their ERC funding was removed, is worth reflecting on. Following a referendum in 2014 Switzerland over immigration, restrictions were put in place on Switzerland’s eligibility to access the EU’s Horizon 2020 program of funding. While part of this access has now been restored, the withdrawal of access has had some considerable affects on Swiss science that were not well-anticipated by the Swiss research sector. For Swiss researchers, it is much easier to obtain national funding than get the extremely competitive ERC funding. This reduced the visibility of Swiss research and in some cases meant that the quality of research could not compete on the world stage. The removal of free movement across borders has also had a knock-on effect in terms of collaboration and attracting the best scientists to Switzerland.

16. Some of the aforementioned benefits may continue in the absence of EU membership. We cannot prejudge what arrangements will be made with the EU in the event of a ‘No’ result. Important research collaboration may continue through pervasive and existing co-operation at European meetings such as the General Assembly of the European Geoscience Union, an annual geoscience conference in Vienna that has become a major international gathering of over 12,000 scientists, and previously established networks. The advent and spread of internet access and fast, cheap travel may at some stage mean that EU membership is not a critical component for continued interaction.

Impact on UK Industry and Skills

17. Geological science in the UK underpins the creation of a significant proportion of the nation’s wealth and raw material security. Most obviously, this has been through oil and gas, where the experience gained from the North Sea during the last 50 years has given us a world-leading position that enables UK companies to function (and flourish) globally. Much of this is in partnership with other bodies in Europe, where Eastern Europe continues to offer interesting opportunities. In mining, we are seeing new mines opening in the UK in connection with the strategic necessity to have a secure supply of raw materials, such as tungsten (Drakelands Mine, Plymouth, opened in 2015) and potash (Sirius Minerals now has planning permission for a new deep mine near Whitby). The secure supply of geological raw materials is an example of the practical value of EU science, given the scientific programmes that exist to ensure that EU industry has access to the materials it needs in a global market. Clearly, the UK on its own cannot ensure domestic security of supply of all mineral raw materials, given the nature of our geology.

18. In addition to metals, mining of aggregates for construction is very much a European industry, with multinational companies trading throughout the EU. The science involved focuses less on exploration and production, and more on remediation and environmental protection. Both the supply of groundwater for drinking and management of waste in landfill call upon EU-wide science reflecting the European nature of the drinking water supply and waste management industries. The UK’s engineering and environmental consultancy sector is a significant employer of geologists throughout Europe, using their science to support infrastructure and environmental projects at a range of scales. Without access to EU systems, processes and resources, the UK’s science base and ability to generate wealth through industry will be severely handicapped.

19. The UK government is engaged in a number of large infrastructure projects that have important EU components. Currently, UK policy calls for the implementation of nationally important strategic projects including Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Radioactive Waste Disposal. Successful development of these industries requires cross-border collaboration in terms of knowledge exchange and funding as well as access to the required natural resources. CCS in particular has received considerable EU funding for CO2 pipeline scenarios that would not have been funded by the UK government alone. The free movement of knowledge and expertise and beneficial trade agreements underpins many important and technical industries in the UK and working cross-border on strategic projects allows the UK and the Euro zone to develop and invest in industries of societal importance that would be beyond the means of one country. A steady supply of expertise and materials requires freedom of movement and beneficial trade agreements. Comments from contacts at BG group, a multinational oil and gas company, stated that ease of movement of talent and funds is particularly helpful to big industry, as are the relationships built over years which would be much more difficult to manage in the event of the UK’s exit from the EU. It is their view that the free movement of EU citizens has a positive impact on the quality of science in the UK.

20. There may also be some considerations around energy security. Britain is linked to the international oil and gas business through the North Sea which is a very mature field where future investment will be in decline. Ensuring energy security in the coming decades involves good relations with the EU as well as favourable trade agreements. The UK imported 477.2 Terawatt hours ( of gas in 2014, a trend that is not set to diminish significantly in the near future. The gas pipelines which account for a significant proportion of the imports all terminate in the EU and so a good relationship with our European neighbours will be of increasing importance to ensure future energy security in the UK.

21. Changes to the UK’s freedom of movement of policy also have implications for UK PLC in the form of current skills gaps in the UK workforce. The shortage occupation list, compiled by the Migration Advisory Committee, highlights a number of technical specialisms where there is a shortage of workers with the required skills in the UK. These skills gaps are currently served in part by EU and international skilled workers. However, a change in the freedom of movement could further exacerbate the issue of skills shortages.