Five reasons Priti Patel is completely wrong about EU science funding

Leave campaigner offers more fantasy pledges on science - while her government muses budget cuts


Priti Patel was on the BBC Today programme today defending a new spending pledge from the Vote Leave campaign. It was pretty farfetched – even by the standards of the campaign promises made so far.

So far we’ve had: more school places, new roads, cuts to VAT on fuel, tax cuts, £100 million a week on the NHS, and more. Now we’ve got a new pledge to add – and it’s a biggie.

Vote Leave today claim they’ll protect all – that’s right, all – funding for science, farming and culture that we currently get from the EU, in the event of a Leave vote on June 23.

How did Patel choose to defend her promise?

‘Well, why would any government of the day choose to cut those areas of spending? What government of the day would do that?’

Which government would cut the science budget? Why, the government of which Priti Patel is a member!

Here are five reasons why Vote Leave’s latest claim is a sham:

  1. Government funding for science is stagnating. They can’t be trusted to protect it.

For the first time in 20 years, overall science spending fell below 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2012, thanks to austerity. That’s significantly less than the G8 average of 0.8 per cent.

While relatively protected in the last spending review, it follows years of squeeze. We are falling behind the world when it comes to science funding.

Moreover, the government has just frozen the science budget – and repeatedly threatens cuts of between 25 to 40 per cent: it is a non-protected spending area. We have at least four more years of austerity, and most likely more. Is it likely that the government will fill the enormous gap post-Brexit?

  1. In contrast, EU science funding to the UK is actually growing.

EU funds now make up 17 per cent of the total science research grants in the UK’s Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). As Scientists for EU note, ‘a huge 73 per cent of the increase in HEI science funding from 2007 to 14 can be assigned to EU sources’. British science is growing not because of the UK government, but because of the EU.

  1. But even that is missing the point. This isn’t just a numbers game.

Much of the research UK universities are currently doing is for international EU projects. The simple fact is, that would be much harder were we out of the EU. The EU Research Council is a window of opportunity for UK scientists to work cross-border.

As Universities UK points out, ‘Research done through international collaboration has 1.4 times the impact of research done on a national level’, while ‘over 60 per cent of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with partners inside the EU’.

Science funding is almost entirely grant/project-based. We would miss out on taking part in a huge range of vital international projects were we to Leave.

  1. Vote Leave’s numbers are way off. They’ve already spent their EU ‘saving’.

As the Royal Society note, the UK is a net beneficiary when it comes to EU science funding – we put in more than our contribution would justify. And we’re second in the whole of Europe when it comes to EU Framework Programme funding for science.

But none of this matters if we can just put all the money from the Brexit savings into science, right?

Well, the problem is that Vote Leave have already ‘spent’ those savings.

After the rebate and returned income is taken into account (minus the economic impact of a Leave vote), the UK gives around £160 million per week to the EU. Vote Leave have already said £100 million of that will go into the NHS.

Their other main spending pledge is a cut in VAT on fuel bills, one which has been totally uncosted but which would almost certainly account for most of the other £60 million per week. Again, that’s all before the long-term economic impact of a Leave vote was taken into account.

  1. It’s not just about the money. It’s about people.

People from the EU make up 15 per cent of the academic workforce, and EU students 5 per cent of the student body, while in 2012/13, over 27,000 EU students came to study or work (train/teach) in the UK with an Erasmus grant.

What’s the likelihood this would remain the case once the proposed border controls and stricter limits come into force?

The international cooperation we get to work on cross-border research with EU colleagues across the continent is unparalleled anywhere in the world. We have the biggest knowledge sharing platform that’s ever existed – and we’re all the better for it.

So today we’ve added another unfunded spending pledge from an organisation with no power over it. But this is bigger than that.

Knowledge is for sharing, not for hiding away in favour of nationalism. British science is stronger for us remaining in the EU.

Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter @josiahmortimer.

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