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Brexit and Science Funding: What Exactly is the Problem? By Sir Noel Malcom

brexit science funding
Written by Sir Noel Malcolm

‘Tory minister blasted over Brexit by top scientist in furious clash as 29 Nobel prize-winners sound the alarm’. So said the headline on the Daily Mirror website (Tuesday, 23 October).

Tory minister blasted over Brexit by top scientist in furious clash as 29 Nobel prize-winners sound the alarm’. So said the headline on the Daily Mirror website (Tuesday, 23 October). This was about a discussion at 8.10 a.m. on the Today programme that day between Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winner, Director of the Francis Crick Institute and former President of the Royal Society, and Sam Gyimah MP, the Minister of State for Universities and Science. ‘Furious’ is a very exaggerated description of the tone; Nurse made several criticisms of the government’s treatment of science in the preparations for Brexit, and did once accuse Gyimah of failing to give a direct answer to his question,  but the exchange was generally polite. Nevertheless, it was clear to any listener that Sir Paul had worked himself up into some very strong views. So what was all the fuss about?

He had been invited onto the programme because of two open letters, publicised that day, of which he was a co-signatory and perhaps a co-organiser. These letters are signed by 29 Nobel prize-winners and 6 Fields Medallists; the signatories are from the UK and various EU member-states. One is addressed to Theresa May:

https://royalsociety.org/~/media/news/2018/brexit-nobels-fields-UK-letter.pdf

and the other, which is almost identical, to Jean-Claude Juncker:

https://royalsociety.org/~/media/news/2018/brexit-nobels-fields-EU-letter.pdf

The central message of both is that since Brexit creates a risk of erecting new barriers to scientific collaboration between the UK and the EU 27, ‘All parties in the negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU must now strive to ensure that as little harm as possible is done to research … We must not allow the UK or the EU to become more insular in our approach to each other.’ Specifically, they note that Mrs May has promised to seek the UK’s continuing participation in EU research programmes; they urge the UK to ‘step up its commitment to those programmes if it wants to remain involved’, and they call on the EU to open those programmes ‘to “association by the best and participation by all”, based on a financial contribution that is fair to all.’

Overall, there is nothing in this even-handed pair of messages that any reasonable person, whether pro-Brexit or anti-, would disagree with. They make a general comment about ‘risk’, and put forward some general recommendations about coming to an agreement. (Whether these rather anodyne letters merited being promoted by the BBC to the lead item on the radio news that morning is, however, another question.)  During the discussion on the programme, Sir Paul’s criticisms of the government for what he called ‘chaos’ in its Brexit planning were also understandable. But some of the other things he said were, nevertheless, very questionable.

Let’s take the less important one first. Mixed up with the release of these two letters was the publication of a survey of staff at the Francis Crick Institute, which showed first that many of them were apprehensive about Brexit, and secondly that almost all thought that a ‘hard’ Brexit would be bad for science in the UK. The second of these views is easy to understand, given that so many people imagine that a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit means not just a Brexit with no special agreement about the future trading arrangement, but a Brexit with a calamitous lack of agreements about anything at all.

But the first of these findings was summarised by Nurse in strangely dramatic terms. It was ‘devastating news’, showing that the staff at the Crick Institute had ‘absolutely no confidence in science in the future’. What apocalyptic forebodings did the survey reveal?

The result of the survey, given in the coloured graph here

https://www.crick.ac.uk/news/2018-10-22_hard-brexit-could-cripple-uk-science

was as follows: asked whether the prospect of Brexit made them feel more or less likely to remain in the UK for their next job, 51.26% said ‘less likely’, 13.66% said ‘more likely’, and 35.07% said it would make ‘no difference’. We are not told whether those who said ‘less likely’ were concerned about a possible drop in funding, or, if they were EU citizens, about visa uncertainties, or indeed whether, like many academics, they were just deeply opposed to Brexit for more general reasons and wanted to express that disapproval. Of course the figure of 51.26% is worrying, even though it is a representation only of the mood among just over half the staff at present, not of actual departures in the future. But it is surely not reasonable to describe this figure as showing that the staff of the Institute had ‘absolutely no confidence in science in the future’. Even leading scientists, it seems, can lose their sense of proportion when you put them in front of a studio microphone.

Another of Nurse’s arguments in that discussion was even more questionable, however. When Sam Gyimah said that the government is going to put an extra £7 bn of funding into science over the next five years, Sir Paul replied:

‘Of course we’re very pleased to see Sam’s support for science …But it isn’t quite as simple as that. The UK gets back from the European Union more than it puts in… it’s around, up to £1 bn each year … The Treasury’s been aware of this for many many months, but it hasn’t done anything about it. It hasn’t told us where that money’s coming from.’

Now, you don’t have to be a Nobel prize-winner to know that £7 bn, divided by 5 years, comes to well over £1 bn each year (£1.4 bn, to be precise). Sir Paul’s question about how the figure of ‘around, up to £1 bn each year’ would be replaced had therefore already been answered. So the presenter chipped in, asking him: what about the extra £7 bn?

At this point Sir Paul launched into a completely different argument. The new £7 bn, he said, ‘will bring us up from being near the bottom of the G7 nations with respect to science funding … to somewhere in the middle. And this up to £1 bn cut that we’re talking about will significantly erode even that improvement.’ That is one way of looking at it. Another way of expressing the same facts would be to say: there will be no ‘£1 bn cut’ at all; not only is the existing level of funding guaranteed, but there will be an improvement of £0.4 bn on top of it.

But Sir Paul was not to be diverted from his chosen argument. ‘Tell me’, he demanded insistently, ‘where is the £1 bn that is lost coming from? Which budget is the Treasury going to transfer it from, that will be substituted for the money that will be lost to British science?’ And when Mr Gyimah failed to give the kind of specific answer he required, he asked the question again. This was the ‘furious clash’ that so excited the Daily Mirror headline-writer.

At no point did either the presenter or Mr Gyimah question the figure of £1 bn bandied about by Sir Paul. This statistic was presented by him as a solid fact; but it is no such thing. There is no real figure for what the UK contributes to the science funding disbursed by the EU, for the simple reason that the system does not work like that. The UK’s contributions are paid into the general EU budget, and then the EU decides which disbursements to make out of that budget.

In the absence of any real, solid figure, some sort of quasi-figure has to be invented. The Office for National Statistics is required to produce annual figures for the UK government’s spending on research, and it naturally feels the need to include some element to represent our contribution to the EU programmes. So a notional or ‘indicative’ figure is devised by officials at the Treasury (using methods for which there seems to be no clear explanation in the public domain – or if an explanation is available, it is not susceptible to lengthy internet searches).

Like most aspects of EU budgeting, the EU’s research and development funding comes in seven-year cycles. Until the current one ends in 2020, definite totals will not be available for it; but we can use the figures for the 2007-13 cycle. During that period the UK received £8.8 bn from EU funds, while the ‘indicative’ figure thought up by the Treasury for our contribution in this field was £5.4 bn. (See p. 34 of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report (Apr. 2016):

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldsctech/127/127.pdf  .)

Thus over those seven years the apparent net benefit to the UK was £3.4 bn, which equals £486 million per year. The current seven-year cycle has a budget which is greater by roughly one quarter (I concentrate here on the two main categories, of structural funds and Framework Programmes, as described below; cf. the 2007-14 figures in fig. 3 on p. 31 of https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldsctech/127/127.pdf with the figures in fig. 6 on p. 12 of https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/eu-uk-funding/uk-membership-of-eu.pdf ). So one might expect the apparent net benefit, as calculated on the basis of the Treasury’s notional figure, to have gone up to something a little above £600 million per year. On this basis, Sir Paul’s ‘around, up to £1 bn each year’ looks like a considerable overestimate.

But we need to dig a little deeper into the figures. There are two main categories of EU funding for research and development. One consists of grant programmes for which researchers apply in a competitive process. This category is called the ‘Framework Programme’ (the current one, for 2014-20, also goes by the name ‘Horizon 2020’); it includes the funds administered by the European Research Council. The other category consists of a special sub-set of the EU’s ‘structural funds’. These are distributed only to regions that fall below a certain level of per capita GDP; most of the UK is too prosperous to qualify, but some funding does go to Cornwall and to parts of Scotland and Wales. Overall, payments from the EU’s structural funds support a whole range of projects, such as the building of roads and bridges; but in what follows, I shall use the term ‘structural funds’ only for the moneys of this kind that are devoted to research and development.

Together, these two general categories account for the great majority of all EU spending on research and development. (One other, much smaller, category disburses money on research into nuclear energy; for simplicity’s sake it will be disregarded here.)

It is certainly true that UK applications do well in the competitive process. In the Framework Programme for 2007-13, the UK received 6.94 bn Euros out of the total of 40.16 bn, which is  17.3%. (See the figures in fig. 6 on p. 12 of https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/eu-uk-funding/uk-membership-of-eu.pdf .)

Similarly, it has been calculated that as of March 2016 the UK had received 15.4% of the total spent so far in the current Framework Programme. (See p. 7 of the House of Lords Library briefing note: http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/LLN-2016-0055/LLN-2016-0055.pdf  .)

However, in the other category, that of the structural funds, the UK does much less well, for the reasons given above. Here, in 2007-13, we received 1.9 bn Euros out of a total of 51.6 bn devoted to research and development: a share of only 3.7%. Our receipts were dwarfed by those of Poland (9.3 bn), Italy (6.1 bn) and Spain (5.6 bn). (Again, see the figures in fig. 6 on p. 12 of https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/projects/eu-uk-funding/uk-membership-of-eu.pdf  .)

Putting the two categories together yields a total UK receipt of 8.85 bn Euros out of a total of 91.8 bn of EU funds spent (in these two dominant categories) on research and development: a share of 9.64%.

How does that compare with the general rate at which the UK contributes to the EU?

It is surprisingly difficult to find a single statistic giving the UK’s contribution to the overall EU budget as a percentage share of all contributions during the period 2007-13. One study gives the figure of 10.7% (see p. 22 of Gabriele Cipriani’s report, Financing the EU Budget: https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/Financing%20the%20EU%20budget_Final_Colour.pdf ) but this is for ‘national contributions’ in a narrow sense, excluding the customs dues which are collected by the UK on the EU’s behalf and mostly sent on to the EU. If those are included, the figure will be somewhat higher. Every year the Treasury produces a report entitled European Union Finances; the ones for 2007-13 are available online. In this publication one finds, each year, a pie-chart giving the overall contribution of each member-state (including customs, and with any rebate subtracted) to the EU budget. (For an example, the report for 2011, see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/236119/8232.pdf , where the chart is on p. 13.) For the years 2007-13, the percentage figures for the UK’s contribution are given as follows: 12.5; 12.2; 9.95; 10.87; 12.5; 11.61; 12.4. The average of those figures is 11.72. This will not be a scientifically accurate figure, for more than one reason, but it is at least ‘indicative’, as the Treasury might put it.

It is of course true that all attempts to give notional figures for the UK’s contribution to any particular area of spending will rest on assumptions that are open to question; but here at least we have the basis for a simple comparison. We have been contributing something in the region of 11.72% of the money paid in, on a national basis, to the overall EU budget, and receiving 9.64% of the money paid out by the EU for research and development.

It is therefore very hard to see how Sir Paul Nurse’s figure of an annual subsidy to the UK of £1 bn can be justified. It is also difficult to understand how the Treasury can come up with a figure for the UK’s ‘notional’ contribution to the research and development budget of only £5.4 bn in 2007-13, when it is known that we received £8.8 bn during that period; on the simple basis for comparison suggested here, one would expect the notional contribution to be higher than the amount received. But until the Treasury makes public a detailed account of how it produced that figure, it is not possible to say how this large discrepancy has arisen.

Finally, a few comments on the path that lies ahead.

On leaving the EU, we shall of course cease to qualify for any of its structural funds. We shall also cease to qualify automatically for participation in the next Framework Programme. However, many non-EU countries do take part in the Framework Programme. There are 16 ‘Associated Countries’ that participate fully, competing on an equal basis with EU member-states for grants, and paying national contributions on a basis that is calculated in proportion to their GDP; these include Albania, Georgia, Israel, Moldova, Montenegro, Tunisia and the Ukraine. (See https://ec.europa.eu/research/iscp/pdf/policy/h2020_assoc_agreement.pdf .) It seems highly unlikely that the EU would wish, in the long term, to exclude from this system a country as advanced and productive in so many areas of scientific research as the UK.

In her Jodrell Bank speech on 21 May 2018, the Prime Minister declared:

‘I have already said that I want the UK to have a deep science partnership with the European Union, because this is in the interests of scientists and industry right across Europe. And today I want to spell out that commitment even more clearly. The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&T. It is in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU that we should do so. Of course such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with that contribution and the benefits we bring. The UK is ready to discuss these details with the Commission as soon as possible.’

It was with reference to that policy that Sam Gyimah said, in response to Sir Paul, that the Prime Minister had made clear that ‘we will continue to associate with these programmes post-Brexit’.

But the most eloquent support for that policy came, curiously enough, in the letters written by the 29 Nobel Prize-winners to Mrs May and Mr Juncker:

‘By deciding to leave the EU, the UK has given up its right to participate in EU research and innovation programmes. It must now step up its commitment to those programmes if it wants to remain involved. For the EU it is vital that it makes international cooperation a trademark of its research and innovation programmes. That means acting on Pascal Lamy’s report for the European Commission on maximizing the impact of EU research and innovation programmes which calls for opening up the programmes to “association by the best and participation by all”, based on a financial contribution that is fair to all.’

These scientists, Sir Paul included, want the UK to pay a ‘fair’ contribution for the right to enter into the competition for funds. No one is disagreeing with that. If the competition is genuine – that is, if the awards are made on merit, and not on the basis of the size of the national contribution – it seems very likely that UK science will then be a net beneficiary. This is something we can all wish for. And when it happens, we shall for the first time be able to cite reliable statistics about the difference between what we receive from the EU as scientific funding, and what we actually pay in.

About the author

Sir Noel Malcolm