Ministers campaigning to leave the European Union say that they will “continue to fund EU programmes in the UK until 2020” in the event of a Brexit, including research funding.
But the pledge in an open letter from senior Vote Leave figures, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, prompted Universities UK to observe that EU support “goes far beyond money” in terms of increasing international research collaboration.
Mr Gove has already appeared to indicate his belief that any Brexit would not be completed before 2020, when the EU's current research funding framework programme, Horizon 2020, expires. The Vote Leave letter does not give any assurances for the period beyond 2020.
UUK, which is running a campaign to highlight what it sees as the benefits of EU membership, puts the value of EU research funding to British universities at £1.2 billion a year.
The Vote Leave letter, signed by 13 senior Conservatives, says: “There is more than enough money to ensure that those who now get funding from the EU – including universities, scientists, family farmers, regional funds, cultural organisations and others – will continue to do so while also ensuring that we save money that can be spent on our priorities.
“If the public votes to leave on 23 June, we will continue to fund EU programmes in the UK until 2020, or up to the date when the EU is due to conclude individual programmes if that is earlier than 2020.
“We will also be able to spend the money much more effectively."
The letter adds: "The [EU] funding system for scientists is also unnecessarily bureaucratic. As the Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim said: ‘I can offer no nice words for the EU framework programmes which...can be praised only by Europhobes for discrediting the whole idea of an effectively working Europe.’ After we vote leave, it should be a priority to increase funding for science and fix problems with the funding system, not all of which are the fault of the EU."
The ellipsis in the quotation from Sir Andre's Nobel lecture removes the words "except for the European Research Council". The ERC, part of the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, provided grants totalling about €12 million (£9.5 million) for Sir Andre and his research partner Sir Konstantin Novoselov in their Nobel prizewinning work on graphene, according to the University of Manchester, where they are professors.
When asked by Times Higher Education about the 2020 timeline in the letter on research funding, a Vote Leave spokesman said: "We believe we will have left the EU by 2020.
"We're only going until 2020 because a) the government can't guarantee levels of EU funding past 2020 and b) the letter is signed by Conservative ministers. After 2020 it may be a different party in government."
Mike Galsworthy, programme director of Scientists for EU, said that the signatories to the letter “are not clear about whether they will continue to buy into EU science, or replace the nominal amount”.
He added: “If it's the former, they'd likely need to retain freedom of movement and continued net contribution. If it's the latter, that's a huge step down in returned value as we know international research has 40 per cent more impact than domestic-only research."
A UUK spokesman said: “We welcome any call to raise overall investment in UK research and science, regardless of the EU referendum result."
But he added: “British universities do disproportionately well in winning EU research funding. It would be highly unlikely, therefore, for other EU countries to allow the UK full access to this funding outside the EU, when we are so good at securing it.”
He continued: “EU support, however, goes far beyond money. Our membership of the EU provides a common framework which enables researchers to pool their knowledge, infrastructure and resources to tackle global challenges, from cancer to climate change. Free movement of people across the EU allows us to attract the best and brightest students and researchers to British universities – making a major contribution to research, teaching, the UK economy and society."