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An academic illusion: research depends on an EU ‘pot of money’

Analyses the EC financial statements over the 15 years 2000-2014 and shows that the notion that the UK gets more research grants than others, or ‘more than we put in’, is merely the folklore of the research community

In May 2015, Matthew Freeman, a  cell biologist and head of the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, contributed an article to The Guardian, headed ‘EU science funding: the UK cannot afford to lose out on this pot of money’.  It went on to claim that British scientists have earned more back in grants than the UK has contributed in every year of the scheme’s existence.[1] He then pointed out that ‘British labs were awarded over €1bn between 2007 and 2014. Again, we receive more than we put in, as we received almost double the amount of money than the next best funded country, Germany… By sheer numbers, the biggest impact is probably the Erasmus exchange studentships, which fund tens of thousands of undergraduate and diploma students to move in each direction every year. Many end up doing research in British labs, and those that go abroad bring back training and skills.’

On 25 September 2015, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge,  Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said that ‘17 per cent of last year’s research income at the University, totalling £68 million, had come from the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme.’ Referring to the vast Innolife Knowledge and Innovation Community involving 144 companies, research institutions and universities across nine EU countries, he observed that ‘In today’s competitive world we cannot stand alone… scale is exactly what is needed if we are to overcome society’s grand challenges. Put simply, we cannot access the talent, develop the infrastructure or provide the funding at a national level.’[2]

These views have apparently become today’s academic conventional wisdom.[3] More than 150 Cambridge researchers have followed their Vice-Chancellor and claimed that Brexit would be ‘a disaster for UK science and universities’ on the grounds that EU funding has ‘raised greatly the level of European science as a whole and of the UK in particular’. Also, according to these researchers, ‘because we now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe’, there might be a ‘loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe.’[4]

None of these 150 academics have evidently looked at the evidence about EU funding for research in the UK, so their letter would appear to merit an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest number of distinguished scientists to have simultaneously made a claim before examining any evidence?

The initial flaw in the reasoning of these distinguished intellectuals is to assume there is a pot of research money in Brussels. There isn’t. UK universities do not receive a penny of European Commission money, because it has virtually none of its own, unless you care to count tariff and VAT receipts, which it is pleased to call its ‘own resources’.

All of the funds these research scientists receive from the European Commission are in fact from the pockets of their most long-serving and long taken-for-granted patron whose intelligence they have just insulted: the UK taxpayer. Funds from the UK taxpayer have been paid by the UK government to the European Commission as part of the UK’s membership contribution. These funds, or part of them, are then re-branded, and returned to the universities and other recipients in the UK by the European Commission, and are apparently greeted rapturously at Oxford and Cambridge, as if they were generous and far-sighted contributions to scientific endeavour in sharp contrast to the miserly and grudging, less-than-expected contributions from the UK government.

The idea that the European Commission has a pot of money which it grants to eager British recipients was first conjured up by Harold Wilson to persuade the British people that they would receive numerous grants from Brussels if only they voted to remain in the European Common Market. Even at the time, this seemed to show a rather cynical view of the intelligence of the average British voter, and it is improbable that many fell for it. That 40 years on, the brightest in the land could fall for it, or at any rate use it, comes as a bit of a shock, and suggests they also have a rather low opinion of the intelligence of their ultimate benefactor, the UK taxpayer. But let us look at the relevant data about research funding, which these eminent scientists preferred to ignore. It comes from the European Commission annual financial reports on its budgets over the past 15 years.[5]

The evidence that Cambridge research scientists didn’t look at

The actual amounts of research and technology funds distributed by the European Commission, under all its programmes, to the 11 member countries who have received the most substantial amounts over the 15 years 2000-2014 are shown in Table 1. The last line gives the percentage of each member country’s total annual contribution that has been repaid to them by means of these grants for research and technology, though Belgium and Spain have in fact made no net annual contribution over any of these 15 years.

Chapter 43 - table 1


The table gives the total amounts distributed to member countries 2000-2014 for research purposes. The figures are taken from the EU Financial Statement 2000-14 which reproduces the annual Financial Statements on the Budget. From 2000 to 2006, line items are not numbered, the one reproduced in the table is described Internal Policies: Research and Technological Development, and excludes Euratom and educational programmes such as Erasmus. From 2007, funds distributed to member countries for research & technological development are  listed under Sustainable Growth item 1.1.1, and named as the Seventh Research Framework, but  distinguished from TEN (Trans-Europe networks), Galileo, Marco Polo,  nuclear decommissioning, and from ‘earmarked’, ‘other’ and ‘non-EU’. This format continues until 2013. In 2014, the labels and line item identification change.  Sustainable becomes Smart and Inclusive Growth and line item 1.1.1 now refers to large infrastructure projects already  mentioned plus EGNOS (satnav) ITER (nuclear fusion) Copernicus |(earth Observation) Galileo, Marco Polo, nuclear decommissioning, as well as and from ‘earmarked’, ‘other’ and ‘non-EU’, with ‘other having grown to a spectacular €1.7

Line item 1.1.3 is ‘Common Strategic Framework (CSF) Research and Innovation’, and it is this line which is reported in the table, Beneath on line 1.1.31 is Horizon 2020. It is distinguished 1.132 Euratom and 1.1.31 from Education, Youth & Training which incorporates the Erasmus programme. However, HorizonChapter 43 - table 2 2020 is over 97% of the CSF.

All the claims made by the head of the Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford that ‘British scientists have earned more back in grants than the UK has contributed in every year of the scheme’s existence’, that ‘we receive more than we put in’, and that ‘we received almost double the amount of money than the next best funded country, Germany’, though often repeated by EU enthusiasts, are completely without foundation.

The total funds received by UK recipients for research and technology from the EU over the 15 years equal a small percentage  of the UK’s gross contribution as shown in the box. The mean over the 15 years is 5.44 per cent. The bottom line of the main table shows that these funds equal 14 per cent of the total net contribution by UK taxpayers over the same period. The 15 year total in the main table shows that the UK has received €10.1b which is less than €11.3b received by Germany. There are, however, a bewildering variety of EU programmes, so it is entirely possible that in one or other of them the UK might have received more than German recipients. The table, however, is drawn from the aggregate figures in the annual EU budget Financial Reports, and therefore gives the total expenditure apart from separately itemized projects such as Egnos & Galileo satellite navigation systems, and the European Commission’s contribution to ITER, the international nuclear fusion research project.

Belgium and Spain have most reason to believe that there really is an EU ‘pot of research money’, since their net contribution to EU revenue over these years has been zero, but they have nevertheless received substantial research funds, more than five contributing countries and far more than four of them. All of the remaining 16 member countries have also been recipients of the grants for research and technology, even though they also have not contributed to EU funds.  Since funds collected from nine contributing countries have been re-distributed among 28 countries, it may be seen that one important function of European Commission research and innovation policy has been to redistribute funds to support scientific resources and research effort within the EU away from the nine contributing countries to the 19 who contribute nothing.

In Table 2 below, annual payments made to individual countries are shown as a percentage of the total funds distributed in each year. This is not the same as the total budget since about 35% of the expenditure on research and innovation is ‘earmarked’, or otherwise not available for annual distribution.[1]

Although there is considerable stability in the shares, we can observe a few shifts over time. Between 2000-2002, for example, the UK received the largest share of these funds, but since then has been displaced by Germany. A more dramatic shift has been the continual increase in the share awarded to Belgium, and the corresponding falls in those of France and Italy. By 2014 Belgium received a larger proportion than every contributing country except Germany and the UK. The share being given to Spain, the other non-contributing country, also increased quite sharply from 2008, but fell back in 2014. Even so, its share has routinely exceeded those of five contributing countries. The shares of the other 16 members, receiving small percentages and not included in the table individually, have tended to increase steadily over time.

Chapter 43 - table 3Some further insight into these decisions on the distribution of research funds can be obtained by showing them as expenditures per qualified researcher in each of the 11 member countries over these years 2002-2013, since the numbers of researchers for 2014 has not yet been published. In this table, all the figures have been converted to €s (2013) by the European Central Bank’s euro deflator, since that enables us to see real changes without being distracted by inflation. The three bottom rows show other important information regarding recipient member states: the sum total of the amounts awarded to member countries over the 14 years, their means, and the ordinal rank in terms of both.

Belgium, a non-contributing member country, has been the runaway  winner in terms  of sums awarded per researcher, receiving more than double that of the second-placed country, the Netherlands, and more than four times as much as the UK, which is in 8th place. Italy remains a rather large recipient of funds, even though the amounts have declined slowly over the 14 years. The largest contributor of funds, Germany, has received a rather low amount per researcher. Only Finland has received less.

Chapter 43 - table 4

Enthusiasts for EU membership, like the Head of the Dunn School at Oxford, are for some strange reason fond of claiming that the UK has received more research funds than Germany, that it has been the largest recipient of research funds, and even that it is a net beneficiary because its awards exceed its contributions to European Commission programs. These misperceptions seem to be due to looking at the data selectively, and of not comparing like with like.

For the record:

  • There is no EU pot of money filled by other countries or from other sources. The funds that UK research has received from the EU have been paid by UK taxpayers.
  • The UK has not been a net beneficiary from the European Commission redistribution of funds, getting out more than it paid in.[1] On the contrary, research grants have been on average a mere 14 per cent of the UK’s net annual contributions to the EU.
  • The UK has not received more research funds in absolute amounts than Germany, though if funds received by member countries are compared per researcher, they have received more.
  • However, by this measure both the UK and Germany have received less than most other member countries.

The continuous redistribution of funds for scientific research on which the European Commission has been engaged over the past 15 years has been away from both Germany and the UK. The full extent of this redistribution and its impact has, as far as I know, never been analysed, explained or justified. The second main issue raised by these academics about the free movement of researchers from the continent will be better considered after examining some evidence about the UK research community.

The truly baffling aspect of this examination of EU research funding is the failure of distinguished academics to examine any available evidence before making categorical pronouncements. One can understand that handsome grants for cherished projects and institutions and gifted colleagues and students, which they have received via the EU, might have distracted them. However, they owe it to their ultimate benefactor, the British taxpayer, to use their first-rate minds to give an honest, accurate and thorough appraisal of the relative merits of indirect EU or direct UK funding of their research. Thus far, their contribution to the EU referendum debate has failed to do that.


[1] Wednesday 13 May 2015 10.04 BST

[2] Speaking at ‘Excellent research in the UK: Do we need the EU?’ See more at:

[3] Universities UK launched a campaign 27th  July 2015  making similar claims

For campaign updates:

[4] ‘Hawking leads 150 Royal Society scientists against Brexit’, The Times, Sat March 19, 2016

[5] EU expenditure and revenue 2000-2014[1] Or designated ‘other’ or for non-EU expenditures. In 2104 the ‘earmarked’ totalled €835.5m, the ‘other’ was €1.031b and the ‘non-EU’ €444.1m. The EC Budget Office has did not respond to my request for further details.[1] The Guardian seems especially fond of this argument which it supported in a special feature  on October 9th 2015,  by saying that ‘In total, the UK – which contributes about 11.5% of the EU budget – receives about 16% of all EU science funding.’  The former (€150bn ) is more than 20 times the latter (about €7bn in last FP7 funding year).so what these percentages are meant to show is a mystery.  On November 11th 2015 it repeated the same argument.  What, one wonders, do the researchers it is supporting make of this?

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