How Political is Science?

In a recent twitter thread, Gosse Vuijk, Member of Dr Christian Ehler MEP’s parliamentary team, defended the EU’s reluctance to associate the UK and Switzerland at a time when the wider political relationship was in question. He recalled Dr Ehler’s important article of last November in ScienceBusiness, in which Ehler had underlined the primacy of policy in decisions about association, while demanding at the same time greater clarity and transparency from the Council and the Commission. As Vuijk affirmed, science ‘is inherently political and can therefore not be isolated from the broader political context’.

We should first of all welcome Gosse’s contribution – and that of Dr Ehler before him. Too often, making the argument for UK and Swiss association seems like shadow boxing, because there is so little response from those who disagree. To my knowledge, Dr Ehler and his team are the only EU policy-makers that are really engaging with the argument. They deserve a response.

To start with, I share many of Gosse Vuijk’s and Dr Ehler’s observations. I agree that science (or at least decisions about science) – is political. Politicians make funding decisions between many competing interests. And we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr Ehler and his colleagues - even if at times we disagree with them - that they articulate the voice of science in the wider political arena. Only by acknowledging the importance of politics and engaging with it can we maximise the role for science.

The Stick to Science campaign has argued that science should be above politics. One way of rephrasing (or qualifying) this might be that in the case of Swiss and UK Association, the unity of science should prevail over political disagreement between the EU, Switzerland and the UK.

My own view is that precisely because decisions about science are political, the UK and Switzerland must associate. In the current geopolitical climate the importance of ‘strategic autonomy’ is increasing dramatically. But is EU science able to go it alone? In many key strategic fields, such as artificial intelligence, European science will only be world-leading if the EU, the UK and Switzerland combine forces. If we are really worried about Europe’s global scientific competitiveness, then UK and Swiss association to Horizon Europe should be a top – scientific and political – priority.

An important observation that comes through Gosse Vuijk’s thread is the potency of the ERC to attract the top scientists to the EU. Indeed, he quotes others who question whether it is in the EU’s strategic interest that ERC funding might help non-EU countries to attract top scientists also to their research systems. But given that the EU has underinvested in science for decades – it has been far away from its 3% of GDP investment target first articulated in 2000 – surely the wisest political choice, as well as the most effective one scientifically, is to strengthen European science through maximum collaboration. If we can enlarge Europe’s science eco-system to strong R&I nations like the UK, Switzerland, or indeed Japan, New Zealand, Australia or Canada – why should we not welcome this?

Gosse Vuijk notes – correctly – that choices must always be made in the association of Third Countries, whether they are Japan, South Korea, or the UK and Switzerland: in each of these cases you need political agreement first. This reflects not just a political view, but also the legal base, notably Art. 16 of the Horizon Europe legislation.

Alongside pre-defined relationships, notably the EEA (16a), candidate member countries (16b) and European Neighbourhood Policy countries (16c), Article 16d lumps together all third countries (16d). The problem with this article has always been that it is rational, but makes little sense. There surely is a massive difference between countries with which we have shared a close relationship through the European Research Area as well as past Framework Programmes, and far-away countries that have never participated.

Whilst we cannot now change Art. 16d, we can still choose to apply it wisely. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU continues to be governed by a large number of bilateral treaties. These treaties served as a basis of Swiss association to Horizon 2020. There is nothing to stop these treaties forming the underpinning of Swiss Horizon Europe association now.

It is a bit more tricky in relation to the UK. Horizon Association was agreed between the UK and the EU in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which in itself is based on the Withdrawal Agreement (including the Northern Ireland Protocol). The problem here is that the UK’s choice not to implement fully the Northern Ireland protocol takes away the foundation for the political agreement between the EU and UK – and thus the foundation for Horizon Europe. Yet – the final word has not been spoken on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. And if the UK ultimately walks away from the Protocol, then there are dispute resolution mechanisms foreseen in the treaties. This should not stop Horizon Europe association.

Indeed, Brexit was and is about identity politics. A refusal to associate the UK to Horizon Europe will not make any difference to decisions in Westminster about the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. But it will undermine those in the UK government that are trying to make the UK-EU relationship work for the future. For once the UK decides to set up parallel, rival mechanisms to Horizon Europe, it may well undermine the prospect of UK-EU cooperation in science funding for the long haul. And that will sever one of the most important links between the UK and the EU that have remained over the past six years.

So yes: Swiss and UK Association to Horizon Europe is deeply political. Policy-makers must choose to distinguish EU science globally through cooperation with its closest neighbours. They must invest in long-term relationships with countries that will have to be our closest allies – based on culture, history, and the strength of our R&I partnerships. And they should opt for pragmatism in ensuring association, without losing sight of more principled disagreements that must be settled.


Published June 7, 2022 10:56 AM - Last modified June 7, 2022 10:56 AM