Sunday, June 5, 2016

Why staying in the EU might be good for UK research

There is obviously a lot of debate at the moment about the pros and cons of staying in the EU. I'm not going to get into the broader debate, but I thought I'd highlight some data on European Research Council funding successes that suggest why Britain is better off in the EU in this instance.

Here, I take a look just at grants awarded to individuals in the form of European Research Council (ERC) Starter, Consolidator and Advanced grants.  The amount of funding goes from €1.5-€2.5 million, with these grants generally viewed as being very prestigious. In 2015 for example, grants worth ~€398 million were awarded to the UK by the ERC.

There are two reasons why the UK is better off in the EU in relation to funding under these grant schemes.

First of all, the UK does very well in all three grant schemes, and in fact has the largest number of grant successes of any European country.

In the 2015 allocations, the UK received the highest number of starter grants (61, compared to second-placed Germany's 53), the highest number of consolidator grants (67, compared to second-placed Germany's 45), and the highest number of advanced grants, with a whopping 69 awards, compared to second-placed Germany on 43 awards. So, in absolute terms, the UK attracts an awful lot of this funding, which means excellent research and researchers are being funded to do their work in the UK.

Secondly, the majority of grants won by the UK are not actually won by UK citizens, but by non-UK citizens who have come here to work, or who are using the grants to come to the UK to do research.

For starter grants, only 28% (17/61) were awarded to UK nationals - the figure below shows the distribution of grantees by country of host institution. For consolidator grants, 36% (24/67) went to UK nationals, while a majority 65% (45/69) of advanced grants went to UK nationals.  Overall, more than half of all awards (56%) that came to the UK were awarded to non-UK nationals. In monetary terms, approximately €212 million of the €398 million awarded in 2015 was brought to the UK by non-UK citizens.  So, yes, there is excellent research being done in the UK, but a large chunk of it is being done by people who are not originally from the UK.   What's more, the largest proportion of non-UK "grantees" are from elsewhere in the European Union.

ERC Starter grant awards by country (2015)

There's no doubt that the UK does very well out of these funding competitions, and the success rate also speaks to the quality of research and researchers working in the UK.  However, the data also highlight the importance of freedom of movement within the EU for scientists and researchers. Switzerland is outside the European Union, but also does very well out of ERC research grants; the condition for them being able to access these funds (or any other Horizon 2020 funding) is freedom of movement for EU workers. If the UK were to leave the EU and place added immigration controls for EU workers, would the UK remain as attractive a place to work in the future?  I'm not so sure.

Statistics on awards for starter, consolidator and advanced grants in 2015

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