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What research does Britain really need?

Excellence without the EU’s help: the European Synchrotron in Grenoble, France, set up by multilateral treaty including the UK. Photo P. Ginter/ESRF.

In recent years, UK academia has become increasingly hooked on a steady supply of grants from the European Union. But even without Brexit that tap could never run indefinitely. Time to set our own priorities…

How will research fare when Britain leaves the European Union? Twenty years ago, the question would hardly have been raised. 

After all, Britain has been part of European research since well before the European Union was even thought of. That’s because research has always had an international dimension – ever since Erasmus came over to Britain in the 16th century.

In the second half of the 20th century Britain was part of a growing number of European collaborations that have yielded spectacular results. And interestingly, none of them had EU help to get started.

The most successful of all, CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, was set up by multilateral treaty in 1954. The same goes for the European Molecular Biology Organization, set up 10 years later and based in Heidelberg, Germany, but with offshoots in Hamburg and Hinxton Hall, near Cambridge. 

More recently, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility was inaugurated in 1994 in Grenoble, France. The world’s most intense X-ray source, it has been used to reconstruct images of dinosaurs, in medicine, and even to “read” charred ancient scrolls.


But in recent years, UK academia has become increasingly hooked on a steady supply of grants from the European Union.

In part this is due to a rise in EU spending on research as Brussels looks for ways to try to justify its existence. But the way that money is handed out also plays a big part in the addition.

In the past, as for much of EU funding, the general principle was that countries should get from EU funds roughly what they put in. In research, that began to change in 2007, with the creation of the European Research Council.

Now around 15 per cent of research funding (roughly – it goes up and down) comes from the European Union, almost all of it through Horizon 2020, the current six-year programme which ends in 2020.

Figures on funding by the European Research Council indicate that the UK has been the largest recipient of research grants. Since 2007 the UK has been awarded 1,787 ERC grants out of a total of 8,597, or just over 20 per cent. To put that in context, the country second on the list of grants awarded is Germany – with a population 20 per cent larger than the UK. 

What was a trickle of EU money has become a flood, and many academics aren’t asking questions about a policy that has stripped Central and Eastern Europe of research funding. 

With Britain, Germany and France among the big winners of the new funding principle, there have been losers. Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have had just one project funded by the ERC – in more than 10 years. Croatia has had only 3, Bulgaria 4, Romania 5, Estonia and Slovenia 6 each.  

Poland, with a population of 38 million, has had just 27 ERC projects. For the newer EU member states, what was a trickle has become a drought.

When the policy of “excellence” was introduced, governments in Central and Eastern Europe were assured that after a short, sharp shock their research activity would be forced to raise its game, and everyone would be a winner. 

That hasn’t happened, not least because with the EU’s free movement of labour most of the bright young researchers went – and are still going – straight into laboratories in Britain, France and Germany where they can earn three to four times as much as in their own country.

According to the Hungarian government, the “EU 13” – the 12 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, plus Malta, which joined after 2004 – have garnered between them just 5 per cent of all the money handed out by Horizon 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the affected countries are not happy. They are trying to use the current negotiations on the budget for Horizon Europe, the planned successor to Horizon 2020, to get more money for their own research communities.

But they have made little headway, other than a ruling from the European Commission that they can use their own money to beef up the salaries of their own researchers who return to their native countries, without infringing the EU’s state aid rules. (Yes, really, until now that has been deemed illegal!)

Meanwhile, the richer EU countries have kicked ideas of a fairer solution into the long grass with a plan for “mapping exercises” to see whether there really is a brain drain from east to west.

Still, even if Britain had voted to stay in the EU, the long-term future for research funds from Brussels would have been far from certain. Unfortunately, the short-term future isn’t clear, either.

The UK government has promised to make up any shortfalls in Horizon 2020 funding arising from Brexit. But bland assurances apart, there has been an absence of detail, and academics are getting nervous. “The Treasury needs to commit to protecting this funding long-term,” said Paul Nurse, director of the Crick Institute, in November.

It can certainly afford to do so: effectively, it will cost the government just £33 million to replace each £100 million of EU funding – because every £100 million received in EU funds reduces the British rebate by £67 million. 

‘Research grants are doled out according to political priorities.’

Research funding in the EU is a political area. At the moment a battle is raging between the EU’s member states (via the European Council) and the European Commission about who should set research priorities. Currently it is the member states, but the Commission made a power grab this year when trying to establish the ground rules for Horizon Europe, the planned successor to Horizon 2020.

Whether it is the European Council or the Commission, the end result is the same: research grants are doled out according to political priorities. 

This should strike horror into the hearts of British academics, given how hard they have fought to establish the so-called Haldane Principle that decisions on research should be decided on by researchers – a principle now enshrined, in part, in UK law.

But as long as the EU keeps providing the money, many are too busy burying their snouts in the trough to start thinking about what funding research really needs, and what Britain – rather than the EU – really needs from research.

Some disciplines stand to lose more proportionally than others: academics in the humanities and social sciences are far more dependent on EU funding than any other research sector. 

Altogether, around 17.8 per cent of EU research money has been allocated to the social sciences and humanities, according to the European Commission. That’s a much greater proportion than allocations by the UK research councils, where between them the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council accounted for 9.7 per cent of all Research Council spending last year – and are planned to make up even less by 2020. 

So it’s no surprise that the main beneficiaries of EU research funding in the UK are in the humanities and social sciences. According to figures from a report for the Royal Society, archaeology tops the dependence list with 38 per cent of its research funding coming from Brussels, followed by classics, IT and (predictably, given the EU’s priorities) media studies.

Under the £80 million EU Horizon funding scheme, funded research projects were designed to increase mobility of all workers still further, including researchers, through ever greater refinements in EU policy. Funding for EU projects in the arts, humanities and social sciences is measured in large part by their declared purpose to forward the EU agenda.


At the level of individual universities, some institutions have allowed themselves to become overwhelmingly dependent on the EU trough. Goldsmiths College in south London receives 61 per cent of its research funding from the EU, with Middlesex University on 51 per cent.

This kind of dependency has created an academic fifth column in Britain. Research funding apart, fewer than half the doctorates awarded now go to UK nationals. If you exclude student teachers, very nearly two-thirds of graduate students are foreign nationals. 

Put that together with research funding dependencies, and you can see the consequences. The first and most urgent is that the academic sector as a whole is now utterly dependent on the “free movement” of the world’s talent – not to speak of dependence on EU grants – no matter what the damage to other nations’ academic base. 

There is in reality no “free movement” for UK nationals apart from in very particular specialist fields such as languages, culture or history. There is no incentive for UK academic staff to settle permanently in countries with lower salaries and even less job security than in the UK. 

In the long term, academics and hopeful PhD applicants, while they think they are clever supporting the EU, are literally cutting off their own opportunities as they compete with thousands of candidates for jobs. 

According to the Royal Society, over a quarter (28 per cent) of the 194,190 academic staff in UK universities are non-UK nationals. Recruitment from the EU makes up a significant part of this. In 2014/15 there were 31,635 EU nationals (excluding UK nationals) working in our universities, 16 per cent of the total, and 23,360 from outside of the EU, 12 per cent of the total. 


PhD students also make up a large proportion of the UK’s research population, with a total of 81,130 active in UK higher education institutes in 2014/15. Some 14 per cent of PhD students are non-UK nationals from the EU, with 36 per cent from outside the EU – half of the doctoral students in the UK are foreign nationals. 

What the figures don’t highlight is the appallingly low number of, and cutthroat competition for, PhD scholarships, many awarded to non-UK nationals. If the playing ground were equal across the EU this might be tolerable but there is no equality here. 

‘McCarthyite hounding of any academics who support leaving…’

The reasons why EU students want to come here – quality of research, better pay, conditions and security, and the ability to work in the academic lingua franca – don’t apply to UK students, who are not interested in settling in other EU countries in any significant numbers. There is no reciprocity. 

The international profile of the UK’s academic workforce reflects the ability of the UK to attract talent from overseas and this supports the UK’s scientific excellence. UK institutions with greater proportions of foreign researchers and researchers with international experience scored more highly in the recent Research Excellence Framework, which assesses the quality of research in higher education institutions.

Settling overseas?

Throughout the Royal Society’s report, the term “UK-based researchers” refers to researchers who have stated an affiliation with a UK institution. By analysing the publication record of such researchers we can see how much these individuals have moved internationally. Using data from publications in this way means that non-UK nationals who are based in the UK are included in the analyses, and these individuals represent a considerable proportion of the total. 

The UK has a highly mobile researcher population. Almost 70 per cent of active UK researchers in the period 1996–2011 had published articles for which they were affiliated with non-UK institutions, indicating that they had worked abroad at some point during that time. Some of those researchers may have moved for relatively short stays, but UK-based researchers also move for longer periods: 21 per cent of UK-based researchers worked abroad for two years or more during the same period.

But they don’t want to settle. Of course there are exceptions, but by and large they don’t take up citizenship elsewhere.

So from the research perspective there should be no surprise at the horror from university managements and academic staff at Brexit. Nor at the McCarthyite hounding of any academics who dare to express support for leaving the EU.

But in doing so, universities in the UK are effectively supporting the destruction of research capacity elsewhere, the destruction of their own national research base, and conniving in unprecedented opportunity loss for young British nationals. 

British academics used to complain – rightly – about the brain drain to the United States. They should have no part in a system that relies on sucking in talent from poorer countries. 

The sooner Britain leaves the EU, the sooner research policy can put its house in order.

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