19 May 2016   |   News

Brexit would remove vital prop to UK research, says new study

Science funding from the EU supports world-class science in Britain and masks weak investment from the government

The UK has become highly dependent on EU support for parts of its science base, with potentially damaging consequences if there is a vote to leave on June 23, according to a new report by research software company Digital Science, which tracks the EU contribution to UK research over the past decade.

So for example, some 67 per cent of funding for evolutionary biology came from the EU, and 62 per cent of nanotechnology funding, with Cambridge and Glasgow Universities major beneficiaries.

Similarly, 41 percent of public funding for cancer research came from the EU, with University College London and Newcastle and Sheffield Universities the main benefactors. The figure excludes the large investment in cancer research made by Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, however.

Meanwhile, the field of economic theory received a huge 94 per cent, or £11 million, of its research money from Brussels.

The UK contributes a lot of money to the EU budget but gets more back for research than it puts in. 

According to a report from the Lords science committee last month, the UK contributed nearly £4.3 billion to EU research projects from 2007 to 2013, but received nearly £7 billion back in the same period.

Underinvestment by the government

EU money disguises the relatively small amount of science investment by the government, according to the report.

“While the UK has remained highly internationally competitive and successful and has won a large portion of EU funding, the UK has not invested at a national level to ensure that we keep up with competitors in our own right without EU assistance,” said Digital Science chief executive Daniel Hook.

The UK is, “significantly more dependent on EU funding than other countries such as Germany,” says the analysis.

Britain is the second largest recipient of EU research funds after Germany, receiving some £8 billion in the past decade compared to £8.34 billion for Germany. But Germany spent almost 3 per cent of GDP on research in 2013, according to the latest figures from the World Bank, while the UK invested around half that amount, 1.63 per cent. This is below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent and the US at 2.8 per cent.

In the private sector, the investment gap between the UK and Germany is even wider, with UK companies contributing 1.06 per cent of GDP to R&D, almost 80 per cent less than their German counterparts.

Industry R&D would also be left with a big hole in the event of an EU divorce. The engineering multinational Rolls-Royce, for example, received £51 million from the EU between 2006 and 2015; telecom giant BT £23.8 million and the BBC £2.87 million.

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