UK criticised over EU research funding shortfall pledge

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'If [the UK government] cuts funding, you might find smaller areas like nutrition will be squeezed for bigger areas of science,' says senior nutrition researcher. ©iStock/MarianVejcik
'If [the UK government] cuts funding, you might find smaller areas like nutrition will be squeezed for bigger areas of science,' says senior nutrition researcher. ©iStock/MarianVejcik

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The UK government’s promise to underwrite EU research funding post Brexit is welcome, but ultimately too short term, director of Newcastle University’s Human Nutrition Research Centre has said.

On Friday the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, attempted to ease fears about UK science funding​ post Brexit by promising to honour any funding granted before the UK leaves the European Union.

“We recognise that many organisations across the UK which are in receipt of EU funding, or expect to start receiving funding, want reassurance about the flow of funding they will receive,”​ he said in a statement​.

“That is why I am confirming that structural and investment funds projects signed before the Autumn Statement and Horizon research funding granted before we leave the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after we leave.”

The government also promised to match the current level of agricultural funding until 2020, which it said would provide certainty for a “vital”​ community in the country.

Yet discussing the announcement John Mathers, professor and director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University in the UK, told us the promise although welcome was too short term and unlikely to make much of a dint in the damage he says Brexit will cause the UK scientific community. 

The EU was unlikely to backtrack on funding already granted, which the government’s pledge appears to be making provisions for.

Instead the real danger lay in what long-term guarantees would be made, beyond Brexit and beyond 2020.

Long-term losses

With planning for research projects often starting years before experiments actually begin, these were assurances that needed to be made sooner rather than later so that researchers could continue making plans, he said.

He said the question now was what plans for science funding the UK had long term – and this could depend on the state of the economy as a whole.

“It will depend very much on the UK’s future approach to funding. If it cuts funding, you might find smaller areas like nutrition will be squeezed for bigger areas of science.”

Professor Mathers has benefited from “continual” ​EU funding for the last 20 years including through his part in the €9m EU-backed project Food4me​.

The Food4me project is a consortium of 25 partners from 12 European countries. 

Stories have already emerged about UK researchers being taken off bids for EU Horizon 2020 funding in an attempt to remove possible problems at application level. 

Mathers said Brexit and the negotiations running up to it would make it more difficult for UK researchers to take part in these consortiums, which were needed for large-scale projects. 

He warned against a “brain drain”​ of UK science as researchers followed the money for projects elsewhere.

The figures

The government announcement comes as UK space researcher Dr David Robinson launched a petition​ to make access to EU science funding key in any Brexit deal negotiations. The petition currently has just over 36,000 signatures.

The UK government responds to any petition with at least 10,000 signatures, and if this reaches 100,000 it will be considered for debate in parliament. 

According to figures quoted in a pre-referendum House of Lords report​, between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €48bn overall in funding from the EU.  

Of this, €8.8bn was for research, development and innovation.

Meanwhile the UK contribution to the EU over the same period was €78bn, of which an estimated €5.4bn was indicated as for the EU’s R&D budget.

This means for science at least the UK was getting €3.4bn more back from the EU than it was putting it.

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