Prof Sir Paul Nurse has said that UK research would suffer if the country were to leave the EU.
A British exit would make it harder to get funding for science and sell “future generations short”, the Nobel Prize winner added.
But a group of scientists arguing to leave the EU counters that UK research would not be adversely affected.
They say British institutions would receive similar amounts of European funding as they do now.
A national referendum on the UK’s participation in the European Union is set for 23 June.
Prof Nurse, who is director of The Francis Crick Institute and the former president of the Royal Society, believes those who campaign for a “Brexit” are jeopardising “the long-term future of the UK for short-term political advantage”.
“We need a vision for our future that is ambitious and not to run away and bury our heads in the sand, and we can best do this by staying in the EU. We should not be side-tracked by short-term political opportunism.”
Prof Nurse was speaking at a news briefing about the impact of a withdrawal on UK science. He was joined by other research leaders who also want Britain to remain inside the EU.
“Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science,” Prof Nurse said.
“That, combined with mobility (of EU scientists), gives us increased collaboration, increased transfer of people, ideas and science – all of which history has shown us drives science.”
Prof Nurse added that as part of the EU, the UK has influence in directing research among nations that collectively have become a “powerhouse” of science on a par with the US and China.
The flows of European science funding
The UK is a net contributor overall to the EU budget
However, it is a net receiver of EU funding for research
In 2007-2013, the UK gave a total of 78bn euros to the EU
Of this, 5.4bn was specified to go to the EU’s RD programme
But in return, 8.8bn euros came back to the UK for RD
In 2007-2013, funding from EU sources more than doubled
In this period, UK research council spending increased by 7%
Source: ONS, CASE
Prof Angus Dalgleish, of the University of London, is a spokesman for “Scientists For Britain“. This is a group of researchers arguing the case for an EU exit.
Prof Dalgleish told BBC News that he believed Britain would be no worse off on the outside.
“We are standing up against what is a very large body of people who feel that if we leave the EU it will be a disaster for funding and collaboration – and we completely refute that,” he said.
“The bottom line is that we put far more into Europe than we get out. Any difference we can more than easily make up with the money we would save.”
Prof Dalgleish’s organisation claims to have 150 members who are involved in science. He is the organisation’s only spokesman, he says, because arguing the case for a British exit is unfashionable in research circles, and individuals who do so, especially if they are junior, find themselves “belittled” by their superiors.
“Many of the more junior people, post docs, are beginning to ask questions to people like me who are (senior enough to be) able to express these views.”
Prof Dalgleish says that arguments in favour of the UK remaining are motivated by the “narrow self-interest” of large scientific institutions and universities that receive millions of pounds of funding from the European Union. But he says that 13 countries outside the European Union successfully apply for and receive EU funds.
He also argues that some of the largest and most successful European collaborations the UK has, such as Cern and the European Space Agency, are not run by the EU.
Prof Dalgleish says that from his experience of reviewing EU grant applications, he believes that political factors such as promoting collaboration are placed ahead of scientific excellence when awarding funds.
“I have been an external referee reviewing grant applications to the EU Framework Programme, and under extreme pressure to come up with a scientific rational to agree with what has already been decided by the bureaucrats,” he claims.
But James Wilsdon, who is a professor of research policy at Sheffield University, and an advisor to “Scientists For EU“, believes it would be “highly unlikely” for UK research organisations to secure the same level of funding if they were to leave the EU.
“We don’t know the terms under which we would participate (in applying for funding if we were to leave the EU), so I think there is a lot of wishful thinking from the Leave camp in terms of having our cake and eating it – by pulling out all our money and still being able to participate in the kind of levels of engagement we have hitherto enjoyed.
“At a time when science is getting more collaborative, more international in scale and more tightly focussed on the big societal challenges we face – the EU is a brilliant mechanism for doing science at that scale and we would be mad to turn our backs on a mechanism for collaboration that we have painstakingly built up over 25 years or more, to return to a pre-collaborative mode in which we are going it on our own.”
Stephen Bates, who is the CEO of UK Bioindustry Association, whose members include British bioscience and pharmaceutical companies, said that such firms would think twice about locating in the UK if the country did not have a voice in regulating the way in which research was carried out.
“It is vital to stay in Europe,” he said. “Withdrawal would pose significant risks for inward investment because we would be cut off from influencing the regulatory environment.”
However, Prof Dalgleish argues that leaving the EU would make UK researchers more open to collaborations with scientists in other countries.
“We are the fifth largest economy in the world without having anything to do with the EU. By being part of the EU, we lose out on being a tremendous force, with all our links with America and the Commonwealth. We are diluted by the EU and much stronger outside it, and I think that goes for all kinds of scientific endeavour as well.”
Last month, the Science Minister Jo Johnson said he believed that an EU exit would be damaging to UK science.
“No-one doubts Britain could stay a science player outside of the EU. Indeed, some of our universities have been successful for longer than many of its member states have even existed. But the risks to valuable institutional partnerships, to flows of bright students and to a rich source of science funding mean the Leave campaign has serious questions to answer.
“While there is nothing in our EU membership that limits our ability to work with other countries, the onus is now on those who want to leave the EU to come and explain how they would sustain current levels of investment and collaboration under very different circumstances.”
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