Pi, pies and why EU membership makes us smarter

17 March 2016

On Monday this week, maths and science nerds around the world marked 'Pi Day'. Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159. In a world of increasing volatility, the constancy of Pi is as striking as the consistent defence of our EU membership from scientists across the UK, which is in part down to a different sort of pie: research funding.

There was some respite announced yesterday, as George Osborne has relented and promised to the science budget protected in real terms. As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn noted in his response, spending is still down by £1bn on pre-cuts 2010 levels.

Our scientific understanding is fed by constant learning, exploring and questioning, the exchange of ideas is best when it is unhampered by borders.

As a region, the North East of England's scientific community has long tested the boundaries of our understanding about the world around us and how our bodies work. From industrial to medical research, our universities and innovation centres across the region are excelling in their fields, from MPI at Redcar, the Centre for Process Innovation's (CPI) work on photovoltaics at NETPark, to biotech advances at the new £38m National Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Darlington.

The cherry on the top for me was the news this week that Newcastle University has been awarded for research into mitochondrial disease. Many researchers dream of directly changing legislation – but that's exactly what those involved in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University have achieved as the UK became the first country in February to approve laws to allow the use of a pioneering IVF technique in patients.

Our capacity to push forward our understanding depends directly on international collaboration, whether joint projects or visiting students and researchers, and adequate science, research and development funding.

Last November, MPs in the Commons science and technology committee criticised the government for deep cuts to science spending in the UK. Britain’s £4.7bn science budget has been frozen in cash terms for the past five years and has slumped to a level well below that of most of our industrial competitors, including Germany and the US. Their report, The Science Budget, showed that the erosion in funding directly undermines productivity and employment in the UK.

This contrasts directly with our increasing ability to win EU funding for research. From 2007-2013, the UK was one of the top beneficiaries of EU science and research funding: we contributed £5.4bn and received £8.8bn. EU funds now make up 17% of the total science research grants in UK Higher Education Institutes (HEIs). But, most importantly, a huge 73% of the increase in HEI science funding from 2007-14 can be assigned to EU sources. As I sit on the European Parliament's industry, research and energy committee, I've been pressing for more of the EU budget pie to be allocated to science and research funding. It is amazing to see directly the difference that this funding is making on the ground.

That's why our EU membership is all the more important and why it's great that UK scientists have taken up the baton in defending our membership. Get involved with their campaign and see for yourself why being in the EU is smarter for Britain at http://scientistsforeu.uk/

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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