EU influence on UK science

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There are many reasons why academics are dreading the possibility of a Brexit: the loss of EU science funding is one of them, access to highly qualified lab personnel another. Euroskeptics keep insisting that we invest more than we get out. But how much does the UK actually contribute to EU research programmes – and what do they get back for their money? And how might that change after Brexit?

A few days ago the Guardian published a commentary by Julian Huppert on how EU membership benefits UK science and why these perks shouldn’t be given up too readily. He is echoing what many academics think these days, however, the wider population tends to see things less differentiated, as various responses from euroskeptics on reddit indicated. I do not intend to make this post about the referendum or argue too much about why I think the UK should remain in the EU. But I thought, as an ex scientist, I could at least offer my viewpoint on how the EU has influenced UK science over the last decade. I know it’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment, but EU science funding has achieved many proud milestones over the last years and we shouldn’t be too hasty to push them all aside.

More interested in financial aspects? Scroll down.

Let me start by quickly summarizing Huppert’s arguments in support of the EU, which I personally can only agree with:

  • We can solve issues relating to health/food distribution/biodiversity/climate change far more effectively when we work together on big, election cycle-extending goals.
  • We all get the opportunity to move around freely in every EU country, live and work there and exchange knowledge and resources
  • He states Cambridge as an example, where a vast majority is pro-EU – quite rightly and understandably so. Being the sizable hub of science and technology it is, none of it – be it basic research or the next promising biotech start-up – would be possible without international collaboration.
  • A quarter of Cambridge’s research funding comes from the EU. There goes a good chunk of scientific research, if maintenance of these projects would be left up to the UK government (which, in good old austerity manner, only ever seems to attract science-related media attention with the announcement of another round of research funding cuts).
  • Because EU funding is available, European students and professionals can come over to the UK (on their own grants, e.g. Erasmus, Framework programmes, Marie-Curie) study and do science here, spend their EU money here (which often includes a bonus for equipment, reagents and travelling – whole labs thrive on these grants) and – if they are convinced to stay on – contribute to UK health care.

Ask any scientist

They will give you the same answer: loosing access to EU science funding would be detrimental.

Of course they first and foremost see it from their own perspective. And that is influenced by the fact that around 40% of them have been funded by either ERC or Marie Curie EU grants throughout their studies and couldn’t have realized their projects without the EU. So gratitude plays a part here. And the simple fact that – if it was up to the UK government – most of us would not be scientists or at least not in the UK. But we are not only talking about individual careers and an effect confined to academics. The whole health care system is expected to feel the consequences should the academic landscape in the UK change.

Science goes where the funding is

Scientists are used to packing up and leaving a country if funding falls flat. It’s hard enough to do science as it is: dodgy half-legal fellowships, short-term contracts, ridiculously low salaries. The EU, on the other hand, provides fixed salaries under reasonable conditions, more security (yes, you even get a contract! and you pay taxes.) and also covers additional expenses for reagents, equipment and conference attendance. The ones of us who had EU funding were usually in the position to actually focus on science, because they didn’t have to worry about next month’s rent.

So if the UK lost all access to EU funding, many people would be forced to carry out their projects elsewhere. And even more scientists would gladly chose to leave the UK to realize their projects in an EU state under better working conditions.

Government funding puts focus on the wrong kind of science

Then there is also the fact that governments, in the relentless short-sightedness that defines them, usually only fund a limited selection of projects: those with more immediate financial rewards. Usually these will be projects in advanced stages, where enough data has already been gathered to sufficiently support a given treatment effect or pathological mechanism. You basically just connect the dots, but someone else has done the work. These studies are of course important, but someone needs to build up the basic knowledge first. Throughout the decades basic science projects with no obvious, defined outcome have always had a hard time attracting the necessary funding. We all know how science works: through serendipity, a lot of luck, a lot of trying, a lot of failing. Only this will get you a new, unexpected result in the end – and what kind of savvy businessperson would invest in luck and failure? The EU funds these projects, because they can afford to not immediately see a tangible financial outcome. Governments typically do not, as the election cycle does not grant them similar luxuries.

The big brain drain

All this leaves a pro-European scientist with little choice but to leave the UK if it ceases to be a science-friendly environment. What would this mean? A country that is currently one of the world leaders in science and technology would lose its access to an extensive pool of highly educated, trained and motivated professionals. One of the reasons why science works so well in the United States is that they can select from 320 million people to assemble their brightest and most motivated talents. European states (not necessarily all of them are EU members) eligible for the EU’s new 7 year, €80 billion science programme, Horizon 2020 would come up to about 350 million as well.

This reminds me of the only big concern Sir Paul Nurse had when talking about the new Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s largest biomedical research centre, which will open in London this year: how to convince scientists to come to London and stay in the UK afterwards. He’s not the only one who sees the Crick as a giant scientific incubator for the entire UK.

Well, fact is: with Brexit this will be a real issue. No-one is going to come to a country that has capped all its international connections, lost many of its scientists and funding opportunities and has turned its back on innovation and collaboration. As much as this is about saying no to a EU membership, to talented European workers, to international advance and growth, this also clearly conveys an image of restriction, barriers and lost opportunities. Science cannot flourish in such an environment. And as much as I cannot imagine London, Cambridge, Oxford or other academic hubs to become deserted intellectual wastelands that have lost all spark and the spirit of ambition that is so characteristic for them, I wonder how such an environment can be maintained if the source of all the enthusiasm is gone: the people who come to learn.

And with the brains, there goes biotech, pharma… and the EMA

All the places mentioned above are currently not only bursting with academic institutions, they also accumulate all kinds of more capital-oriented investors and beneficiaries on their burgeoning biotech campuses. At the moment, Cambridge is home to Britain’s biotech boom, but other cities are quickly catching up. From small start-up companies trying to sell you a range of antibodies to large-scale enterprises, wherever you find new, innovative ideas floating around you also need people with the skill and motivation to take them to the next step. Trained academics are ideal for this purpose  and highly sought after. Which is exactly why biotech and pharma don’t want to be too far off these hunting grounds.

But beside the recruitment of trained staff, other aspects play a part: the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which approves medicines for all EU countries and is the equivalent to the US FDA, is currently based in London. It is there because that location was deemed “a European centre”. Well, it might not be for long. Besides, Europe’s new Unified Patent Court – currently being built in London – might also have to move. Both of these agencies are of tremendous importance to pharma, biotech and indeed the entire biomedical industry, an area where the UK has traditionally had a lot of impact and expertise. The effect on science and development is therefore not the only issue that has to be considered, as more immediate industrial concerns might eventually put the whole British health care system at risk.

Government will step in for science when we lose EU funding

That’s exactly what happened in Switzerland a while ago: on February 9 2014, the Swiss people voted themselves out of the freedom-of-movement agreement with the EU, due to concerns about mass immigration. As this move basically downgraded Switzerland from a EU “associated country” to “third country”, they lost all access to various funding programs, among them the EU’s Horizon 2020. The Swiss government promised to step in and cover the costs, but Swiss science hasn’t been the same ever since. Apart from the loss in potential new projects, Swiss scientists are not available for international EU-funded collaborations anymore. Swiss colleagues I knew from my Marie-Curie days cannot participate in any meetings or exchanges and are isolated from the rest of the community, putting all collaborative projects to a halt

Still, the only argument that euroskeptics seem to have to counter all this is:

“We invest more than we get out” – Is this actually true?

In short: No. Not when it comes to research funding. But as everything related to the EU, the data is not that easy to find:


The Framework Programme (FP) is the EU’s primary funding mechanism for all research & development. The current programme is Horizon 2020, which obviously hasn’t got any spending data yet. But the programme before that was FP7, which ran from 2007 to 2013 with an EU budget of some €55.4 billion.

And here is what the UK got out of it:

According to the latest set of statistics on FP7, as of November 2015the UK received EUR 6,909 million (6.9 bn) of funding through the programme, 16% of the total FP7 funding. Only Germany received more (7.0 bn).

The United Kingdom is obviously the most attractive country for Marie Curie fellows with more than 3.600 incoming and 600 outgoing researchers. The net gain of United Kingdom is therefore 3.000 researchers.

From the monitoring report 2013:

The statistics show that the UK is involved in more successful projects (9,155) than either France or Germany, participating in 41.2% of grant agreements. Of these UK participations, academia accounts for 60%, with UK academia receiving 10.8% of all FP7 funding.

Private Commercial organisations account for 26.1% of all UK participations, while UK SMEs account for 17.8% of UK participations and receive 13.1% of UK funding.

Seventh FP7 Monitoring Report 2013

As some of the FP7 projects are still running and still get money from the EU pot, these stats are constantly updated and expected to rise even more. The predicted EU funding for UK projects is 1bn per year – with 6.9 bn in 7 years we are already there

How much does the UK have to invest? 

Stats for 2014: ~1 billion € in economic growth grants to small business, science and research. Or calculate the details for each country here (about the same for previous years, in 2010 it was 0.9 bn).

But this only includes the contributions that came out of FP7. The UK also received money from structural funds for research and innovation activities: EUR 1.91 bn between 2007 – 2013. Which comes to a total of EUR 8.85 bn of funding awarded to the UK, compared with only 5.4 bn of UK contributions to the EU (source).

So far the UK has received more money out of EU science funds than it had to invest.

But obviously there are other advantages as well, many of them are not easy to put into numbers. For example the impressive amount of highly qualified staff the UK is able to attract, more than any other country in the EU. Additional long-term benefits for UK and Europe-wide economy have been predicted, but so far remain to be validated:

The long-term impact of FP7 in Europe is estimated at an extra 0.96% of GDP, an extra 1.57% of exports and a reduction of 0.88% in imports. The long-term employment impact is estimated at 900,000 jobs, including 300,000 in the field of research.

The annual contribution of FP7 to UK industrial output exceeded £3 billion.


Russell Group briefing note 2015

I’m not saying everything about the EU is great and fair. But what they are contributing to science and advance should be acknowledged. And the UK is certainly among those countries in Europe that benefit the most from EU-driven science initiatives – something that should not be forgotten.

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  1. […] in the run-up to the referendum, I blogged about the influence of the EU on UK science and listed a few points that I thought most relevant. Looking back now, I believe it […]

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