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CaSE letter to Science Minister on intangible benefits of participation in EU research

26 Sep 2018

CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid has written to the Universities and Science Minister on the future of UK participation in EU research programmes.

In August CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid, published an article in the Times Higher Education, suggesting that, with the cost of UK participation in EU research no longer ‘hidden’ post-Brexit, a robust case for Horizon Europe membership needed to be made. That case, he argued, would require valuation of the intangible benefits of UK participation in EU research programmes.

Following discussions with the Wellcome Trust on this matter, Wellcome convened a meeting with Professor Reid and senior representatives from across the science and research community to explore the issue in more detail. The following letter was sent to the Universities and Science Minister, summarising the key themes from that discussion:

19th September 2018

Dear Universities and Science Minister,                                                                         

Intangible benefits of participation in EU research

We discussed the intangible benefits of UK participation in EU research programmes during a meeting last week.  I mentioned that Wellcome and CaSE convened a workshop on 12 September at which we explored these issues and I promised to send you a note of that workshop and the thinking behind it. 

Wellcome attracted an outstanding range of workshop participants, a list of whom is attached.  We heard important insights from Norway and Switzerland about the costs and benefits of their participation in EU research. We received many valuable contributions from UK organisations, not least from The Arts Council, The National Trust and the Medical Research Council each of whom have expertise in assessing intangible benefits. 

This issue is coming into sharp focus as we reach pivotal stages of the Brexit process. There was unanimous support for continued participation in EU R&D.  Clearly it is vital that the UK secures associate status for future programmes. There was also wide agreement at the workshop that the costs and benefits of EU programmes can be better assessed if we have a good understanding of both the nature and scale of their intangible benefits to the United Kingdom alongside direct financial returns. Only then can the value to the UK of future participation in EU programmes be compared with that from alternative options within the UK.

Until now, UK participation in successive EU research programmes has been underpinned by three arguments. The one most commonly cited by researchers is that participation is a highly efficient way of creating pan-European partnerships, sustaining existing collaborations and pursuing high quality research.

Secondly, the cost of participation has been included in the UK’s overall subscription to the EU. That cost is incurred whether or not UK researchers participate.  EU research funding does not appear to come at the expense of UK research budgets.

Third, UK influence has contributed to an EU focus on excellence rather than, say, regional economic development or an even spread of funding across member states. The emphasis on excellence is one factor that has allowed the UK to win more money from participation in EU R&D than the UK’s notional contribution to these programmes.

The popularity of EU initiatives in the UK research community will doubtless continue. But with no overall UK subscription to the EU, the cost of participation will become transparent.

Moreover, with less UK influence on their design, policymakers in Brussels may divert more funds towards regional development, problem-solving missions and global challenges. Early signs of those changes are already visible in European Commission proposals. The financial profit from participation in EU research programmes may not continue.  

If the UK no longer profits financially from participation in EU research then the rationale for participation will largely rest on demonstrating an array of non-financial, intangible, benefits.  If the value of these benefits is sufficient then participation in Horizon Europe remains a viable option.

The following were among the many intangible benefits of EU programmes identified by workshop participants:

  • Competition for EU funding raises standards and accelerates research progress.
  • EU funding increases the diversity of the UK research base by complementing domestic spending.
  • Participation in EU programmes provides access to advanced facilities and access to large data sets unavailable in the UK alone. 
  • Participation in EU programmes helps attract talented researchers to the UK.  The pool of top quality researchers in the EU is clearly larger than that in the UK alone.
  • Many research-intensive businesses operate across several EU member states and are attracted to EU research programmes with similar geographic coverage.  Business participation in these collaborative programmes may improve access to markets elsewhere in the EU.
  • Participants in EU programmes have opportunities to influence the future shape of EU research and innovation and sometimes have opportunities to influence technical standards that shape future regulation.

It will take time to develop robust techniques and data sets to support the valuation of intangible benefits so, in the short term, UK interests would be best served by continued participation in EU programmes.  Extensive evaluations and illustrations of the intangible benefits of scientific and scholarly activities have already been carried out and provide strong starting points for the longer term assessment of costs and benefits.

For example, the Arts Council has quantified many intangible benefits to people and society from investment in the arts.  The Medical Research Council, Wellcome and the Academy of Medical Sciences published a study on economic benefits of medical research.  The UK National Ecosystem Assessment puts a financial valuation on the natural environment in the UK.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering published a seminal analysis by Johnathan Haskel and Alan Hughes of the economic significance of the UK research base a few years ago. And of course UKRI and BEIS already have substantial expertise and experience in assessing the value of public spending on research and innovation and unique insights into the handling of these issues within Government.

I hope this summary is helpful. I remain in touch with officials from both BEIS and UKRI and stand ready to help progress this thinking along with colleagues from many of the organisations that took part in the workshop.  Meanwhile, I am circulating this letter to workshop participants.

Yours Sincerely,

Professor Graeme Reid
Campaign for Science and Engineering