The EU Referendum – How will the result affect geologists?

Long trailed by the previous and current government, we are now expecting the EU Referendum to take place this year – possibly as early as June.

The Geological Society’s policy team is responsible for putting together responses to consultations and inquiries published by the government or other organisations, as they relate to geoscience and the wider policy for science. Several of these have been relevant to the upcoming referendum.

Relationship between EU membership and UK science and engineering

EU flag resize

Text taken from the Geological Society’s November 2015 response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry ‘The Influence of EU Membership on UK science’. You can find the questions asked and terms of reference on the committee website


Currently, science funding within the UK is considerably below the European average and that available in most other developed countries. Access to EU funds is making up for that to a significant extent.

Research programmes like Horizon 2020 allow us to compete on scale and impact with the USA, without which some UK research communities would be relatively isolated and lack capacity and impact.




One significant benefit to EU membership which would be problematic to replicate is research frameworks that are inherently cross-border, and beyond the means of one country.

One example of this is the collaboration over research into new wave theory, an intrinsic part of geophysics research. In the UK we currently have little or no capacity to do sophisticated experiments in wave theory. Many geophysicists and others working across a wide range of fields (including hydrocarbons exploration, communication, military applications, non-destructive testing, etc.) use science that depends on these theoretical advances, and in Europe there are sophisticated laboratories conducting experiments that are changing the way seismology and electromagnetics are used in geophysics.

Without this kind of collaboration the UK would risk becoming irrelevant at the cutting edge of wave theory very quickly. This kind of longstanding research partnership is very easy to lose but would take some considerable effort to rebuild at some future date.

UK based researchers

Image c. National Cancer Institute

Image c. National Cancer Institute

Beyond the risks around funding, there are also broader issues around freedom of movement and associated cultural shifts that could have a detrimental effect on the UK’s research sector. Leaving the EU would send a strong professional and cultural message to the UK’s international researchers and workers which may result in many deciding to leave. Many have written to us to say they would strongly reconsider their current residence in the UK in the event of a withdrawal from the EU, due to the impact on their professional work but also because of a perceived sense of alienation in the UK.


UK industry and skills

c. Stan Shebs

North Sea oil platform c. Stan Shebs

Geological science in the UK underpins the creation of a significant proportion of the nation’s wealth and raw material security. Most obviously, this has been through oil and gas, where the experience gained from the North Sea during the last 50 years has given us a world-leading position that enables UK companies to function (and flourish) globally. Much of this is in partnership with other bodies in Europe, where Eastern Europe continues to offer interesting opportunities.

In mining, we are seeing new mines opening in the UK in connection with the strategic necessity to have a secure supply of raw materials, such as tungsten (Drakelands Mine, Plymouth, opened in 2015) and potash (Sirius Minerals now has planning permission for a new deep mine near Whitby).

The secure supply of geological raw materials is an example of the practical value of EU science, given the scientific programmes that exist to ensure that EU industry has access to the materials it needs in a global market. Clearly, the UK on its own cannot ensure domestic security of supply of all mineral raw materials, given the nature of our geology.

The outcome of the EU referendum could have wide ranging impacts on the geological community – the above are just a few examples. To read our full response, and other resources about geoscience and the EU referendum, visit our policy pages.

Your thoughts

We’d love to know what researchers, geological or otherwise, think about the impact of staying or leaving. Please leave a comment below with your thoughts, or get in touch if you’d like to write an opinion piece – all views are welcome!

  • Update: With the referendum date now announced as 23 June, we are currently carrying out a survey of Fellows and others working in the geosciences, about how the result may affect them. Fill in our short questionnaire by 8 June to contribute your views.

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