In or out?

On 23 June, UK citizens will be asked whether they want to remain in the EU. What will the consequences be for science? Jon Cartwright finds out

‘No, no, no.’ That was the famous response of Margaret Thatcher – one-time chemist and then the UK prime minister – to the prospect of stronger ties with the European Union (EU), in a speech to the House of Commons on 30 October 1990. It was a doomed stance: not only was she forced to resign as leader of the Conservative party less than a month later, but each of her next three prime ministerial successors – fellow Conservative John Major, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the Labour party – oversaw steps towards closer economic and political integration between the UK and the EU.

The UK has always had an awkward relationship with the EU, and arguments around membership have never been laid to rest. Upon entering his second term as prime minister in 2015, fuelled by growing Euroscepticism in the Conservative party and nationwide, David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum to decide the future of the UK’s membership. The date of that referendum has now been set: 23 June. Campaigns are well underway, with free movement of people, sovereignty, trade agreements and membership costs being a few of the central issues under debate.

For most voters, science will not be one of these issues. But as some argue, the outcome of the referendum has the potential to greatly affect the future of the scientific enterprise – in the UK and elsewhere, for better or for worse. In February, more than 100 university leaders signed an open letter claiming that a British exit, or Brexit, could ‘undermine the UK’s position as a global leader in science, arts and innovation’; a month later, more than 150 fellows of the Royal Society, among them the British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, signed a letter to The Times arguing that, for science, leaving the EU could be a ‘disaster’. Certainly there are plenty of vocal scientists insisting on the necessity of EU membership. On the other hand, there is a significant minority who believe that leaving would, at worst, have a negligible effect on science. It is an uncertain time for UK and EU scientists: as this issue went to press, polls suggest a slim lead for voters wanting to remain over those wanting to leave. […]

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