Collaboration is king

The UK is a global player in cutting-edge research. Despite relatively low levels of public investment in this area, UK researchers punch above their weight: the UK represents only 0.9% of the global population, 3.2% of research and development expenditure and 4.1% of researchers, but it accounts for 9.5% of downloads, 11.6% of citations and 15.9% of the world’s highly cited articles.

To what extent this research excellence is supported and enhanced by the European Union is the subject of growing debate in the context of a UK referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, and an ongoing inquiry by the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Overwhelmingly, the academic and scientific community, through Universities UK, Scientists for EU and independently, have sought to underline the value of EU membership and programmes to UK science, but why?

The UK undoubtedly benefits disproportionately from EU research funding. With the exception of the Netherlands, no other country does as well relative to population, gross expenditure on research and development or gross domestic product per capita.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK secured almost €7 billion (US$7.7 billion) in funding from the Seventh Framework Programme. Taking into account other funding streams for research, nearly 10% of the UK’s total research income in 2013-14 came from EU sources.


However, arguments which focus purely on the EU’s financial contribution miss a much larger and more important point: the EU supports and encourages international collaboration, which is fundamental to research excellence in an age of growing interdependency.

By working together, researchers can pool their expertise, infrastructure, data and resources to achieve more together than they could do alone. This enables them to harness diverse and often multi-disciplinary approaches to arrive at innovative solutions to complex problems.

It provides the scale necessary for the establishment and upkeep of large infrastructures, like CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – or the European Transonic Windtunnel.

It allows scientists from around the world to stand on each other’s shoulders to achieve the kinds of research discoveries that improve people’s lives and support our prosperity.

Cross-border collaboration positively enhances the quality, impact and efficiency of the research base. Internationally co-authored publications have been shown to have greater reach and higher rates of citation than those with only domestic authors.

Internationally mobile researchers are on average more productive than their counterparts who stay at home. Today more than 50% of the UK’s research output is the product of some kind of international collaboration. In an age of growing interdependency, collaboration is increasingly vital in order to compete. Universities for Europe has just published a series of case studies which show clearly why, and how, the EU has helped academics to collaborate, boosting the impact and visibility of their research in the process.


By and large, Eurosceptics have failed to engage convincingly with these arguments. Some have promised that, in the event of a ‘Brexit’ – British exit from the EU – money not spent on the EU budget would be channeled into UK science and research. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the added value that collaborating across borders provides: investing solely at the national level would fail to achieve the same results.

Other Eurosceptic voices acknowledge that collaboration is fundamental to research excellence in the modern age. But, for them, the UK’s membership of the European Union has no bearing on our ability to collaborate. In fact, some have even argued that the administrative and regulatory burdens of the EU negatively impact UK science.

Of course, collaboration does not depend on the European Union. Scientists have cooperated across borders since long before the EU, and would continue to do so even if the UK were to leave the European Union. However, by providing a single framework for collaboration, the EU does make international research partnerships significantly easier.

This has encouraged intra-European cooperation, enhancing quality in the process. More than 65% of the UK’s internationally co-authored publications are with partners from other European countries. It has also fostered partnerships globally, helping to put European research, and European researchers, on the map.

Finally, it has stimulated economic growth. It is estimated that the long-term impact of the Seventh Framework Programme is 900,000 jobs and a growth in gross domestic product of nearly 1%.

The UK may or may not be able to negotiate access to EU research programmes from outside the Union. (Non-EU member states may participate in Horizon 2020, but none of them have had to negotiate access to a programme having just left the EU).

Regardless, a vote for Brexit would result in a peripheral position in EU science and research policy: with no institutional influence, the UK would no longer be setting the agenda in Brussels, but would still have to comply with rules and regulations set in Brussels.

In turning its back on the EU, the UK would be putting up barriers to international collaboration, limiting its own economic and research competitiveness in the process.

Lucy Shackleton is on the board of Scientists for EU and is European policy manager at Universities UK.