It is unlikely that the impact on UK agriculture research features in many peoples’ discussions about whether to leave or remain in the EU. If agriculture features in debates at all it is usually around the topic of the Common agricultural policy or CAP.
However, the EU is a significant funder of scientific research, the current Framework Programme (called Horizon 2020) for funding research and innovation, has a total budget of just over €70 billion. UK researchers have done well in the competition for EU funding with analysis suggesting we receive a greater amount of funding than we contribute.
Several prominent scientists have gone on record in favour of the UK staying in the EU. However, while it is fairly obvious why those involved in the big expensive physical sciences projects would be in favour of remaining, what about agriculture?
Historically EU funding for agricultural research has been complementary to UK funding. During the 1990s and 2000s the UK Research Councils pursued a policy of ‘scientific excellence’. This resulted in the UK having a world class basic science base but led to the erosion of applied science and the loss of what are now called translational scientists (i.e. people who could take the results from basic plant and animal science and turn them into something useful for farmers).
EU funding mitigated against this, helping to preserve a cohort of applied scientists in the UK for when the realisation hit home that the UK needed applied agricultural science and national funding was again made available.
The EU has been much more willing to fund certain areas of agricultural research than the UK research councils, such as agro-ecological approaches to controlling pests and diseases and conservation and use of crop and animal genetic resources. The number of researchers working on these topics in other EU states is generally higher than in the UK.
Promoting collaboration has been a key feature of EU research funding and there are also several other funding schemes promoting exchange of scientists and knowledge which allow UK researchers to connect to the expertise in other member states.
Lastly the UK science budget – although it has been protected to some extent – is not immune from the Chancellor’s austerity cuts and obtaining research funding is becoming more and more difficult. Access to EU agricultural research funding provides another source of funds.
So from the perspective of a UK agricultural researcher it is important to have access to EU funding. However, it is possible to do this even if the UK leaves the EU. Thirteen countries have ‘Associated Country’ status; they pay in to the research pot an amount in line with their GDP and have access to funding on the same basis as EU member states. If the UK leaves the EU but remains a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) it could negotiate Associated Country status and still keep access to EU research funding.
Associated States have no say in setting the priorities of the Framework Programme, and the UK would not be able to argue for reform. The House of Lords Select Committee noted that “while just under 2% of the EU research budget (under FP7) is allocated to agricultural research, the CAP itself currently accounts for just over 40% of the EU's total budget” and recommended the UK government should continue to argue for adjusting the balance of funding to drive innovation in agriculture. Outside of the EU the UK would have no voice in this debate and would have to accept what others decided.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, it is unlikely that the impact on agricultural research will feature very much in many people’s decision on how to vote on 23 June (even mine!). But it appears to me that the issues around science research encapsulate the wider debate over EU membership; whether you want to go it alone or cooperate and collaborate to try to achieve more.
The world is an uncertain place, a future outside of the EU looks to me very uncertain, inside is less uncertain and, although definitely not perfect, being inside gives the UK a voice in the debate about changing things.
David Pink is a trustee of the Food Ethics Council and emeritus Professor of Crop Improvement at Harper Adams University. He was previously Professor of Crop Improvement at the University of Warwick.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food Ethics Council.