Horizon 2020 funding: are the wheels coming off for the UK?

A look at the latest detailed figures suggests something is awry, but it may still be too early to tell if Brexit is the culprit

December 7, 2017

The latest figures on Horizon 2020 funding released by the UK government have raised concerns that Brexit may be causing a downturn in grants being won by universities in the country.

According to the statistics, the UK claimed a 16.1 per cent share of all the money that has gone to European Union members since the research programme started in 2014, a slightly lower share than when the last set of data was published in June, when the proportion was 16.4 per cent.

There was a similar small drop in share when looking at the amount of money won by UK educational institutions: 27.6 per cent of all the cash granted to EU universities and schools had gone to the UK by the end of September, down from 27.9 per cent in June.

Given that these are based on cumulative totals, it certainly suggests that there must have been a drop-off in the share of funding going to the UK between the two data releases. But does the European Commission’s own year-by-year data on Horizon 2020 funding give any more detail on what is happening?

The latest data are easily accessible and currently go up until the end of November, with the 2017 figures so far backing up suggestions of a downturn for the UK.

They show that there has been a steady decline in the share of total Horizon 2020 funding going to the UK, with the 2017 figure to date showing a drop of three percentage points to 14.1 per cent compared with 2016. When looking at educational institutions only, the drop in share is more than three percentage points.

At the same time, however, it is worth noting that the UK’s share of funding was not always quite so high: in the first year of the programme in 2014, well before the EU referendum in 2016, it achieved smaller shares of funding.

This could reflect the fact that 2014 was the first year of Horizon 2020, when funding calls were just starting and fewer grant applications would have been completed. Certainly, when looking at the total amount won by the three biggest grant-winning countries overall – Germany, the UK and France – it can be seen that much less funding flowed in 2014.

The patterns for these three countries also show though that Germany is ahead of the UK for winning funding in 2017, possibly another sign that Brexit might be having an effect.

Possibly stronger evidence that 2017 is showing some kind of downturn for the UK can be found by examining Horizon 2020 funding for individual universities.

The latest data up to the end of November confirm that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UCL and Imperial College London have dominated funding success over Horizon 2020 overall, taking the top four spots of those higher education institutions winning the most, with the University of Edinburgh in seventh.

But looking at 2017 in isolation paints a slightly different picture and suggests that the UK is losing ground: UCL and Cambridge are still first and second, but Oxford (in third) is only just ahead of the University of Copenhagen, Imperial is in seventh and Edinburgh has slipped to ninth.

Of course, these might just be normal yearly fluctuations in funding, but those with an eye on the effects of Brexit for UK higher education will be nervous that this is the start of a longer-term trend.


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