The Brexit weakens the European Research Area

Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, on the British decision in favour of Brexit

June 30, 2016

Europe and the European Research Area hold a special significance in the global scientific competition with Asia and the US, as they do in the economic race. The research sphere is one area in which Europe has so strikingly demonstrated what can be achieved in unison. European organizations like ESA, ESO and CERN have created powerful research collaborations across all countries of the continent, which promote the interconnectivity of the science community in Europe and also give European research highest visibility worldwide.

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Britain has benefited significantly from the EU research funding.
Britain has benefited significantly from the EU research funding.

CERN works – so why should that not apply equally to Europe? It’s particularly the more complex questions that can only be resolved successfully with the involvement of scientists from different disciplines and from different institutions and countries of the world (indeed that is true not only of science). We have long spoken of a “Fourth Age” of science, where international collaboration and the unfettered mobility of scientists are bigger success factors than ever in the quest for a strong science system.

The United Kingdom has profited substantially from the unbridled exchange with continental Europe: More than half of all the British research institutions listed in the Nature Index published with co-authors predominantly from Germany and France, besides the US. That is why, a few short weeks ago, 150 renowned British scientists wrote in a letter to The Times of the United Kingdom’s impending scientific isolation should the country come out in favour of Brexit. Sadly their warning went unheeded. Given the scale of the global challenges facing them, including the refugee crisis in particular, nation states are losing their courage – along with their belief in their combined strengths and abilities.

Yet research is an area that shows just what can be achieved by joining forces and working together: Founded in 1954 (three years before the EU), CERN for example has proved a remarkable success. The discovery of the Higgs boson (Nobel Prize in Physics 2013) was but the pinnacle in a long list of ambitious, while also successful projects and scientific discoveries, which included the development of the World Wide Web. CERN now comprises 21 member countries, having started with 12 (the UK being one of them). The EU began with six countries and now encompasses 28 Member States.

Much has been achieved in past years on the road to creating a European Research Area. This includes the opening of pan-European career paths and the overcoming of barriers to the mobility of junior researchers and elite scientists alike, the interconnection of research institutions and the strengthening of promising research regions in Europe – and not least the funding of scientific excellence, particularly by the European Research Council (ERC).

The United Kingdom has profited enormously from these developments. Most ERC Grants awarded to date, for example, have gone to scientists working at British universities, about double the number that went to France. But Britain is just a magnet for the best minds in the world, Cambridge and Oxford are sounding names. Among the top 100 universities in the Shanghai ranking 24 are from Europe, of which alone 9 are coming from UK. In the QS World University Ranking are on the top 50 list 18 US universities, 15 universities from Asia and 14 European universities, including 10 from the UK and two from Switzerland. Consequently, the United Kingdom’s exit from the Union will weaken the European Research Area and see its international profile diminish.

The same risk threatens to befall Switzerland, another scientific heavyweight. Owing to its planned immigration quotas, the country is currently allowed only a temporary partial association with Horizon 2020, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. If no agreement can be reached by the end of 2016, Switzerland could be relegated to the status of a non-member country. That is seen as highly problematic by the country`s scientists, given that Switzerland’s top position as a location for science is closely linked to its internationalism and integration into the European Research Area.

Europe will not find it easy to replace the strongest driver of science within its borders. Eastern Europe continues to exhibit a lack of efficient structures and suitably equipped labs. An ERC without the United Kingdom is thus hard to imagine. The upcoming negotiations with Britain will need to secure the nation’s continued integration in the scientific community. And new rules will need to be crafted for the mobility of scientists. One would have wished for a somewhat less complicated state of affairs.

In spite of all obstacles, the Max Planck Society will continue to champion the European Research Area. The Society does this already by establishing strategic alliances in Europe. Max Planck Centers have already been set up with University College London, Sciences Po in Paris, EPF Lausanne and ETH Zurich, for example. We seek cooperation and dialogue with Europe’s preeminent scientific institutions as a path to intensifying collaboration in new research fields.

Each and every one of us can only stand to profit from a stronger European Research Area. It is the basic prerequisite for Europe to retain its competitive strengths – and ultimately expand them. Brexit is a step backwards in these endeavours.

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