Ongoing UK Research Problems (10) – Losing EU Funding
(November 28th, 2017) Following the result of the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum, the UK government has resolved to be the first nation ever to withdraw from the European Union. In the absence of any previous example nor any clear plan for how the UK will achieve its divorce, uncertainty reigns.
The UK formally joined the EU (then the EEC) in 1973. At that time, there were few mechanisms for funding trans-European scientific research. However, 44 years later, there are billions of euros on offer through a variety of funding schemes, from European Research Council (ERC) grants for science through to a whole range of more applied technology development programmes under the latest ‘Horizon 2020’ Framework Programme.
During this same period, UK researchers have been actively encouraged to seek European funds to replace diminishing national budgets. Indeed, the pressure to obtain such EU funds has proved so successful that official figures from the UK government now show that UK-based scientists receive considerably more back from the EU than the UK contributes. For example, in the 2007-2013 financial framework (FP7), the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research and development funds and received €8.8 billion back.
Based on successful grants awarded upto September 2016 under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimated that leaving the EU could result in a research funding deficit of £2.2 billion. The UK research sector had received a total of £2.21 billion in grants: £1.4 billion was awarded to educational bodies, such as universities, while £473 milllion went to private companies. Of the remaining money, £203 million was allocated to research organisations, £74 million for other public bodies and £34 million for smaller groups. Organisations based in London were awarded the most money (£532 million), followed by those in south-east England (£359 million), eastern England (£265 million) and Scotland (£248 million). The University of Cambridge received the largest amount (£137 million), followed by the University College London (£122 million) and the University of Oxford (£114 million).
Leaving the EU, the UK would potentially lose access to all of these funds. Therefore, to reassure UK researchers that the amounts of funding under Horizon 2020 would not be affected by Brexit negotiations, the government promised to “underwrite” all the agreed awards that may subsequently be affected. It further insisted that UK universities should continue to apply for EU funding while the UK is still a member of the EU.
The UK’s four national academies - the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society - commissioned a report to provide more details of where this EU money had been received. Who had benefitted the most from European funding and which subject areas and institutions were most at risk if, and when, this funding disappeared? The report analysed the latest figures available from the Higher Education Statistics Authority - from 2014/2015 - and found that all academic disciplines received some EU funding, including some less obvious subjects, like archaeology (38 per cent of its total funding comes from EU government bodies), classics (33 per cent) and information technology (30 per cent). In terms of the money allocated to research, clinical medicine and biosciences topped the list with £120 million and £91 million, respectively, while physics and chemistry each received £55 million. The report warned that because of the amounts of money involved, these fields may find it difficult to replace the income if EU funding streams are cut off by Brexit.
The president of the Royal Society, structural biologist, Venki Ramakrishnan, warned about the impact any loss of EU funding could have on the sciences. “This report shows that EU funding sources are essential for UK science and innovation. After the UK leaves the EU, we must make sure that research is not short-changed and the overall funding level of science is maintained”.
Individual universities also benefited from substantial sums of funding from Brussels, with Oxford receiving more than £60 million in 2014-15, closely followed by Cambridge (£59.5 million) and University College London (£45.7 million). However, Robert Lechler, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said EU collaboration was about more than just the funding on offer. “It is important to remember that our relationship with the EU is not only about the pounds (or euros). EU networks are absolutely vital for providing access to the people and the partnerships which allow the biomedical sciences in the UK to excel on the global stage.”
The above comments about securing a stable long-term research relationship between the UK and EU were made at the end of May 2017, when one of the few certainties about the extremely uncertain nature of the UK’s entire Brexit position was that the Conservative government of Theresa May was firmly in power and committed to some form of Brexit (having triggered Article 50 and its 2 year EU divorce countdown in March). Political opposition in the UK parliament was weak and divided. Therefore, convinced that she could capitalise from this situation and obtain an unstoppable parliamentary majority to drive through whatever Brexit policy she wanted, Prime Minister Theresa May called a General Election for 8th June, a full three years early!
The result of this election has introduced even more uncertainty and confusion about the possible options for Brexit and the consequences of its myriad permutations. Instead of an overwhelming majority, the Conservative government’s existing majority of 12 MP’s has been turned into a minority of 8. In order to retain a shaky hold on power, Theresa May was obliged to enter into an alliance with the protestant Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.
Despite this setback, the UK government was already committed to negotiating the conditions of its withdrawal from the EU. This would be vitally important in determining what the subsequent relationship should be. Astonishingly, the UK negotating team - led by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union - did not seem to be aware of how important this could be for the UK’s future and apparently arrived with few details, resulting in an ongoing series of farcical press reports on their diplomatic ineptitude (here, here and here).
While UK scientists have been worrying about losing EU funding, the biggest sticking point in negotiations has been about how much money the UK government will need to pay the EU in order to cover its pre-existing obligations as a member of the EU and to compensate for costs that the whole divorce procedure may generate. The UK’s initial position has been that it didn’t owe any money whatsoever. In September, Theresa May suggested it might be closer to £20 billion while the EU have a figure nearer £60 billion.
However, the example of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has revealed the unexpected difficulties in calculating what sums are involved. The EU insists that Britain must pay the costs associated with moving the EMA out of London to another EU city (Amsterdam was recently announced as the new host city). So far, the total bill is estimated to be £520 million. 60 per cent of these costs are the result of a “botched rental contract” for the EMA’s Canary Wharf offices. The agency failed to negotiate a “break clause”, which means EU taxpayers are locked into a rent contract for its offices until June 30th, 2039.
Furthermore, the move leaves a hole in the UK’s local economy - nearly 900 jobs, a budget of €322 million, and some 40,000 business visits every year, all of which support local hotels, restaurants, etc. And, despite all these costs, it’s still not clear if the UK will remain part of the EMA - which is the regulatory body for the single market for medicines – or whether it will seek to establish its own independent UK equivalent with all the added complexities (and yet more uncertainties) that this would entail.
The word ‘panic’ is now being evoked in UK academic circles (see Part 11).