BBC reads from Brexiter textbook on threat to UK science

Blog, 03.03.2019
David H.A. Hannay (baron Hannay de Chiswick), miembro de la Cámara de los Lores y ex embajador británico (UE y ONU)

Anyone who listened to the interview with Paul Nurse on Saturday’s BBC Today programme will have got a clear picture of the damage that will be done to the UK’s research capacity if we were to leave the EU without a deal. Unfortunately, presenter Justin Webb chose to counter Nurse’s points by parroting a well-worn and highly inaccurate line from the Brexiter textbook.

Nurse is as distinguished a scientist as there is working in the UK, a Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute. He explained (listen from 35 mins) the major loss in resources for research here if EU funding were cut off, given that the EU budget spends much more in the UK on research and innovation than we contribute to those programmes. In addition he spelled out the increased impediments and bureaucracy which would face EU academics, researchers and students wishing to come to the UK and why this would be seriously harmful.

Webb responded to this well-reasoned case by claiming: “If we’re not paying £39 billion to be part of the [EU] club and we need to spend an extra billion, we can do it.” This argument – a favourite of ultra-Brexiters – is dangerous rubbish.

For a start, Webb misunderstands that the £39 billion so-called “divorce bill” is not some continued membership fee; it is the UK settling what it owes the EU from agreements made prior to Brexit happening.

The UK would be certain to be pursued for payment through international courts and tribunals if it refused to pay this money. It is not easy to see the government winning such cases given that the sums had been agreed in a treaty accepted by the prime minister last November.

What’s more, it is not even government policy to withhold such monies, as ministers have explained in Parliament. The damage to the UK’s international standing and credit-worthiness, and to our future relationship with our EU neighbours, no doubt weighs heavily in the scales of that judgement.

Webb also made a slightly different point, that in future the UK could transfer the money needed for science “from the money that currently goes to the EU”. A few minutes study of the government’s own calculations of the consequences of  no-deal Brexit for our economy would reveal a hit to economic growth of up to 9.3% over 15 years. That means much less available in tax revenue and makes the prospect of replacing EU funds for research by national resources little more than a pipe dream.

All that is without taking into account the loss of those invaluable international networks of cooperation which have enabled the UK to build up such a leading role in science and research which will be vital to our future prosperity.

When one of our top scientists clearly spells out the huge risks to UK science from Brexit, it is concerning to see the BBC obscuring this reality with misinformed arguments straight out of the mouths of the Brexiters.

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