EU referendum: does UK research really benefit from membership?

While the UK is a net contributor to the European Union overall, it does get back more research money than it puts in, figures suggest

June 2, 2016
Men selling to each other
Source: Kobal

How well does UK research do out of European Union membership, and could it thrive outside the union?

These are the questions facing academics as the UK’s referendum on EU membership approaches – and the answer, at least in terms of direct flows of money, depends on how you measure it.

Overall, as a relatively wealthy member of the union, the UK is a net contributor to the EU: it sent €30 billion (£22.8 billion) more to Brussels than it received in 2007-13, according to an analysis conducted by the Royal Society that was released at the end of last year.

The money saved in the event of a Brexit could in theory be spent on extra research funding, although the Vote Leave campaign has stressed that these funds should be diverted towards the NHS.

A second way to measure how well the UK does is to look at the amount of research funding it gets back compared with its total EU contribution (see table, below).

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On this measure, the UK does better than average. The best-performing countries tend to be relatively small developed countries, while members in Eastern Europe populate the bottom of the table. Greece’s top position could be a result of the fact that its contribution is measured at the end of the period, after its economy shrank considerably.

Countries’ contributions are based largely on the size of their economies, although there are variations. The UK has a significant rebate, for example.

The contributions are not itemised to fund specific areas such as research, but according to the Royal Society’s analysis, which broke down the various budgets involved, in the period 2007-13 the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU for research, development and innovation activities, while paying out only €5.4 billion to fund these same areas.

In other words, although the UK is a net contributor to the EU’s coffers overall, in terms of research it is a beneficiary, because research is a much bigger part of the money it receives back than the funds it sends to Brussels.

One reason for this is that research funding is allocated on a competitive grant basis, meaning that rich countries such as the UK and Germany with well-developed research systems can snap up much of the money available.

Other types of EU support, such as its structural funds programme, are instead used to boost poorer regions of the region, and on this measure the UK does less well.

Some Brexit campaigners argue that if the UK left the EU, it would still be able to participate in EU research programmes like non-member states such as Norway and Switzerland.

However, Norway appears to be a slight net loser from its involvement in the European research area, at least in crude money terms.

Data from the consultancy Digital Science show that in the period 2006-15, Norwegian institutions received almost £900 million in competitive grants.

But according to the Mission of Norway to the EU, which deals with Norway's relationship to the union, in the same period the country contributed €1.54 billion (£1.17 billion) to EU-wide research programmes.

Daniel Hook, managing director of Digital Science, has repeatedly stressed that the EU would not allow the UK to continue to take out more money than it puts in to research programmes if it was not a member. “The EU isn’t going to let us extract that,” he said.

Competitive grant money received from EU sources in the period 2006-15 in pounds, per €1m contributed to EU budget in 2013

Country Amount received
Greece £682,428
Netherlands £632,268
Republic of Ireland £491,738
Finland £444,915
Cyprus £441,003
Austria £435,137
Sweden £413,211
Spain £372,941
Belgium £364,976
UK £345,404
Denmark £345,318
Estonia £326,954
Germany £283,759
Portugal £275,843
Malta £258,826
Italy £250,630
Luxembourg £234,198
France £229,901
Hungary £228,428
Croatia £219,612
Slovenia £194,833
Latvia £142,226
Lithuania £86,380
Poland £81,266
Czech Republic £81,069
Bulgaria £58,325
Slovakia £56,093
Romania £47,106

Source: Digital Science, EU expenditure and revenue 2007-2013

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