Article first published in the Guardian
Why do I care about our future in Europe? Because it’s in my blood. In my mind, I see my grandfather sitting on the wall a century ago opposite the familiar scene of King’s College, Cambridge, reading. An agricultural labourer from a working-class family in Shepreth, self-taught, like so many of his generation. Hungry for learning – but shut out from great institutions like the University of Cambridge. I have many of his Penguin paperbacks, which my mother saved, now dry and dusty. They still have bus tickets acting as bookmarks, from when he would read on his way to and from work. Like so many of his generation, his life was shattered by the disaster of the First World War. He went on to lose his leg at Passchendale after standing knee-deep in trench water for months on end. I can still remember growing up and seeing the stump, and reading his diaries in which he recounted the horrors of going over the top, knowing full well he and his friends would be walking straight into waiting machine guns.
These experiences starkly illustrate just how quickly a generation’s fortunes can be transformed. My grandfather was thrust from working and educating himself into a brutal war and needless tragedy. It took another world war for far-sighted politicians in Europe to come together in its aftermath and make a determined attempt to set up structures to make sure the atrocities they had experienced would not be visited upon a future generation. For me, this simple argument for peace will always trump any criticism of the EU’s bureaucratic frustrations and it legislative complexities. For my granddad and his mates, peace was worth having.
My generation has been more fortunate. I went to King’s College at Cambridge, read History, and now I’m proud to represent the constituency of Cambridge in Parliament. I know first-hand that Cambridge is home to exemplary universities and schools, as well as a buzzing hub of research labs, bio-tech companies and innovation centres. Education, research, invention: the keys to both Cambridge’s economy and collective identity. Brexit would be, simply put, catastrophic – not only for Cambridge, but for other universities around the UK, for our country’s academic reputation and broad knowledge base.
Yet in four months, we could face just such a calamity, with a particular impact on our universities in two major areas: research funding and collaboration. Universities in the UK benefit hugely from European investment. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received almost £5 billion of Framework Programme 7 (FP7) funds, with Framework Programmes the main EU funding mechanism for research, development and innovation. In fact the UK receives around 12% of all EU research and development budget appropriations, a proportion that is only behind that of Germany and France. According to the Institute of Physics, in 2013/14 around 18% of the total funding received by physics departments came from EU sources, and the University of Cambridge similarly receives around 17% of all its research funding from Brussels. Eurosceptics argue that we would have more money to spend on our own country’s research and development if we did not have to contribute money into the collective EU pot - that we would be better off going it alone. But that fundamentally misunderstands the vital importance of academic collaboration – I am repeatedly told in Cambridge by those involved in research that it is the collaborative links with other institutions in the EU that are vital to their work. As a result of UK participation in the FP7, for example, 100,000 collaborative links were established – mainly with Germany, France and Italy. In addition, it is important to note that 10,000 links were made within the UK itself; EU research funding helped UK institutions to connect, to work with one another, to grow their expertise.
Furthermore, four-fifths of internationally co-authored papers include an author from the EU. Over half of UK publications between 2008 and 2014 had foreign co-authors, with four of the top five collaborative countries being EU countries. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, around 14% of research and teaching staff in UK higher education departments also come from other EU countries.
As a country, we are a major player on the international academic stage. The alternative - to cut ourselves off from the vibrant research community across Europe, from world-class facilities, from a larger market of skills and experiences, to become insular and self-reliant, would be hugely damaging for the quality of the work and research we produce. That’s because we need to attract top talent from the EU to bring a more diverse range of experience to our country’s universities.
We need only look at Switzerland’s recent experiences to draw conclusions about what might happen to the UK’s research funding and status if we chose to leave the EU. Following the referendum in which Switzerland voted against free movement, the country’s deal with the EU’S new Horizon 2020 science funding programme for “associated country” status was called off. Switzerland will now have a deal for “partial association”, meaning that for around 70% of Horizon 2020 funding they will be treated like a “third country” - the same as Japan or the US. Currently the UK is able to compete for as much of this funding as any other EU country and, because of our excellent academic base, we do very well. To deliberately bar ourselves from this funding and the opportunities it offers would be completely illogical.
There are many other very strong arguments to be made for remaining in the EU - economic, environmental, and defence of our employment rights. While the damage Brexit would have upon our country’s universities and academic identity is just one of these arguments, it is a very significant one. UK science, innovation and research is a UK success, a success achieved within the context of our membership of the European Union. If peace is my strongest reason for remaining in the EU, securing the future of our universities is certainly dear to my heart- and would doubtless have inspired my grandfather.