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The role of EU regulation and policy in governing UK research

EU policy making offers an opportunity to implement consistent policy that supports science.

A referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union will take place on 23 June 2016. This report provides an insight into the role of the EU in developing EU and global policies that influence research conducted in the UK. It provides an overview of how EU policy is made and a number of case studies illustrating the development and implementation of EU and global policy that govern UK research. It attempts to show where scientific advice and evidence are drawn on throughout these processes although does not claim to be comprehensive. It does not attempt to assess the value of these policymaking processes or the impact of the policies themselves.

This is the third part of a phased project gathering evidence about the influence of the UK’s relationship with the EU on research. It is intended to inform debate. Previous phases have looked at the role of the EU in funding UK research and its role in researchers’ international collaboration and mobility

Research is a global endeavour and researchers are highly collaborative. In 2015 over half of the UK’s research output was the result of an international collaboration1. UK researchers successfully collaborate with researchers in the EU and around the world. Many of these researchers will be based in countries that have different policies governing research. This does not prevent collaborations but can make them more complicated.

Policy that influences research can be divided into two types; policy that is intended to govern research; and broader policy that has impacts for research practice.
EU policymaking offers an opportunity to implement consistent policy that supports science across multiple countries. This can facilitate international research collaborations and inform decisions over where to invest or locate research. However poorly designed policy at a national, EU or global level can be damaging, whether applied consistently or inconsistently.

Taken together, the case studies in this report illustrate that EU policymaking can result in policy that supports science. Where this is achieved, the research community has actively engaged with the policymaking process. For example, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation that has recently been adopted sets out to regulate the way that personal data are collected and shared across the EU. Following engagement with and by the research community, it will do so while allowing research that accesses personal data to go ahead safely. Where policy is damaging to research, as for example in the first EU Clinical Trials Directive, active engagement by the research community has informed welcome revision of the policy.

Scientific evidence and advice is not the only factor shaping EU policy. Variations in cultural contexts, political priorities and public opinion in Member States can also influence policymaking that affects research. For example, scientists have helped shape EU authorisation procedures for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but high levels of public concern mean that a limited number of GMOs have been authorized for cultivation and food and feed within the EU. This has consequences for research in this area.

The UK’s strong research base means that its researchers and institutions are well-placed and well-regarded to make significant contributions to policymaking. In places, the UK plays a leading role in this, for example current EU policy governing the use of animals in scientific research draws heavily on the pre-existing UK legislation. A number of formal mechanisms exist for EU institutions to access scientific advice. These are not the only way, however, that scientific evidence and advice can inform EU policymaking. The case studies show that informal mechanisms play a considerable role, with individual researchers, coalitions and organisations, such as the UK’s National Academies, proactively engaging with EU policymakers. UK researchers often engage directly with policymaking at a global level as well as through EU mechanisms.

If the UK chooses to leave the EU, decisions would need to be made over where the UK might want, or need, to remain consistent with EU policy, and where it might wish to develop its own domestic policy.

This report provides examples of where EU policymaking has resulted in a number of different outcomes for science, but cannot illustrate what would happen if the UK’s research community and legislators were no longer to be engaged in EU policymaking. If the UK chooses to leave the EU, decisions would need to be made over where the UK might want, or need, to remain consistent with EU policy, and where it might wish to develop its own domestic policy. Whatever decisions are made, it is possible that EU policy would still exert a strong influence over the UK – for example EU policy governing animal research is a condition of all countries that wish to access Horizon 2020 funding, whether or not they are EU Member States. EU science advice mechanisms ensure that scientific advice is part of the EU policymaking process, but UK-based researchers may be less likely to utilise these formal and informal mechanisms and UK legislators would have little or no formal input if the UK chooses to leave the EU.

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