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EU research contributes £1.86 billion to UK economy

European Union research funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the United Kingdom, £1.86 billion (US$2.6 billion) for the UK economy and contributes more than £1 billion to gross domestic product or GDP, according to new figures published on Friday by Universities UK.

The analysis from the vice-chancellors’ body, drawing on the latest data for the year 2014-15 – reveals that UK universities pulled in more than £836 million in research grants and contracts from European Union sources.

This amounts to 14.2% of all UK income from research grants and contracts in that year. The UK does disproportionately well in securing EU research funding, landing 15.5% of the funding allocated under the previous EU research and innovation framework programme (FP7).

Jo Johnson MP, the minister for universities and science, said: “Our membership of the EU plays a big part in supporting our success as a knowledge economy, not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of valuable academic collaborations and access to shared research facilities.

“Britain is an innovation powerhouse and we must do everything we can to maintain that position. As this new data shows, the EU helps to facilitate ground-breaking research, create jobs and strengthen our position as a global innovation leader.”

The analysis was released in one of a series of events hosted by Universities UK, or UUK, to make the case from universities’ point of view for staying in the EU in the run-up to the 23 June referendum in which British voters will be asked whether they want to remain in the EU or leave.

Recent opinion polls suggest public opinion is fairly evenly split, as is at least one prominent political family – Jo Johnson’s brother, Boris, the former mayor of London, is the leading figure in the 'Leave' campaign.

Pro-Brexit scientists have argued that the contribution the UK makes to the structural framework fund and the small amount that the UK receives back outweigh the gains the country makes in securing a disproportionate haul of competitive research grants.

Angus Dalgleish, a professor of oncology at St George’s, University of London, argued in last week’s Times Higher Education that examples abound of how science would not suffer from leaving the EU because European collaboration in science was in place long before the post-Lisbon Treaty EU.

He cited CERN, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer and the European Space Agency.

“Britain is a world leader in science and research and this will not change if we leave the EU political union,” he said.

However, a poll of nearly 2,000 UK researchers published in Nature in March showed that 83% were in favour of remaining in the EU.

Impact of EU funding

The UUK analysis looked at the direct impact of this EU research funding on universities, as well as the knock-on impact on jobs and growth in the wider economy.

The analysis found that:

  • Inside the university sector, EU funding supported 8,864 direct jobs, £836 million in economic output and a contribution of nearly £577 million to GDP.

  • In industries outside the university sector, EU research funding to UK universities generated more than 10,190 full-time-equivalent jobs, £1.02 billion of output and a contribution of nearly £503 million to GDP.

  • The three UK industries that benefited most from this knock-on impact were: business activities (more than 2,604 full-time-equivalent jobs); wholesale and retail trade (more than 2,048 full-time-equivalent jobs); and manufacturing (over 1,259 full-time-equivalent jobs).

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “EU research funding helps our universities to thrive, enabling UK researchers to collaborate with the best minds from across the EU in order to tackle global problems, from cancer to climate change.

“What is clear from this new analysis is that this EU funding also benefits the UK economy, boosting growth and creating jobs both directly and indirectly in a range of sectors in all corners of the UK. EU support goes far beyond money. It also provides irreplaceable networks and frameworks which enable our researchers to have a genuine impact on society by pursuing breakthroughs, discoveries and inventions which improve our lives.”

Importance of collaboration

Professor Anne Rosser at Cardiff University, whose research into tackling degenerative diseases includes a €6 million (US$6.8 million) contribution from the European Commission, said EU membership is not just about the money for science but also about collaboration.

“I know first-hand of the importance of the EU to the development of cures and treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. A lot of the debate has been about the money we get from the EU, but for us here on the Repair-HD project this is not the whole story. For us, it is the collaboration that matters,” she said.

“Outside the EU we wouldn’t have the same access to the networks and partnership opportunities that we do now. These are global issues and to tackle them most effectively we must work with partners across Europe and beyond, pooling resources to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Other examples of collaborative EU-funded projects highlighted by UUK include basic and applied research at the Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, which has received three multi-million pound project grants to collaborate with partners across Europe and beyond to characterise susceptibility to breast and other cancers, using rich data drawn from many countries.

One of the products of this research was BOADICEA, which predicts a woman's likelihood of carrying mutations in breast and ovarian cancer genes and their risk of cancer. It is being used by genetic counsellors, oncologists and general practitioners to identify high-risk individuals. They can then refer these patients for counselling or regular screening, and provide advice about ways to lower their risk. The web-interface of BOADICEA has more than 5,000 registered users from the UK and 103 other countries.

The University of Aberdeen is working with nine teams from universities, research centres and high-tech companies in six countries to develop the next-generation of MRI scanners to identify key diseases earlier. Collaborating at European level enables the project to harness a broad range of expertise, not available in any single country.

Standard MRI machines work at just one magnetic field, but Fast Field-Cycling MRI scanners will allow patients to be passed through thousands of possible variations in field while they are inside the machine, producing more detailed diagnostic information about diseases including osteoarthritis, cancer and dementia.

Phillip Blond, CEO of ResPublica, said: “The benefits of the EU to UK universities and the knock-on benefits for the rest of the UK cannot be underestimated. Not only does EU funding help boost economic growth and create employment in and outside the sector, the cross-border partnerships the EU enables leads to bigger, better and more impactful research and discoveries.”

The UUK analysis, Economic Impact on the UK of EU Research Funding to UK Universities, by Ursula Kelly of Viewforth Consulting, used the same higher education impact modelling system as has been used previously by the authors for UK and regional reports of higher education impact.
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