EU report: science benefit to UK ‘could be overstated’

Although the UK does well in competitive grant funding, it loses out on EU structural funds

April 20, 2016
Man standing with giant spoon and coins, World Vision charity event
Source: Reuters
How big? UK research may not benefit from EU funding as much as had been thought

A House of Lords report on British science and the European Union has questioned whether the UK benefits quite as much as previously thought from the union.

Although generally positive about the relationship, EU Membership and UK Science, released today, points out that unlike in competitive research funding, the UK receives relatively little from EU structural funds, which are designed to develop poorer regions.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received almost €7 billion (£5.5 billion) from the EU’s Framework Programme 7, the predecessor to its current Horizon 2020 programme, the report shows. This amount was second only to Germany’s.

“We heard from universities that this funding is equivalent to having another research council,” the report says, and this is regularly cited by pro-Remain campaigners as a reason to stay in the EU.

However, the EU also distributes structural funds that generally go to poorer regions, including Wales and Cornwall.

On this measure, the UK has received only about €2 billion of research and innovation structural funds, the report finds, far less than Germany (almost €5 billion), Spain (about €5.5 billion), Italy (just over €6 billion) and Poland (in excess of €9 billion).

At a press conference to discuss the report held on 19 April, the Earl of Selborne, a Conservative member of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, said that “when you add in the structural funds, as you would expect…the figure changes”.

“When you’re looking overall, at all sources of funding from Europe, the figure isn’t quite as favourable as at first blush,” Lord Selborne said.

“The academics are always looking at the Framework Programme, and indeed we find quite a bit of difficulty quantifying the structural funds which are indeed used for research and innovation,” he said.

Because of ambiguities over the amount of structural funding, the report finds that “despite many assertions that the UK performs very well in terms of EU funding for science and research, it has proved challenging to define unambiguously the level of EU spending on R&D in the UK and how this compares with other member states”.

But Lord Selborne stressed that the overall conclusion of the report was that the scientific community “greatly values membership” of the EU.

Harmonisation of scientific regulation across the EU was “seen to be of overall benefit to the UK”, he argued.

But he added: “That isn’t to say there isn’t poor regulation. The regulation of animal experiments and genetically modified organisms were mentioned as areas where there were felt to be “barriers to research”.

As for whether, after a Brexit, money saved from EU contributions could be redirected to compensate science for any losses, Lord Selborne said that “there would be other claims on the public purse” and added that it would be “extremely trusting of the future chancellor of the Exchequer to think that that sort of funding would continue in the event of Brexit”.

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