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EU Framework Programmes and scientific collaboration

11 Jan 2019

Tanya Sheridan and Izzie Radford from the Royal Society of Chemistry on how their analysis demonstrates the intangible benefits of participating in EU framework programmes, as well as highlighting some of the great scientific research seeking to solve global challenges.

Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), many in the scientific community have made the case for continuing collaboration through the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation, such as the current Horizon 2020 programme.

Many scientists, sector bodies, charities and others, including our colleagues at the Royal Society of Chemistry, recently reiterated the reciprocal benefits to the UK and the EU of the UK’s participation in these programmes, through the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee inquiry ‘Brexit: EU student exchanges and funding for university research‘.

Agility and mobility

Science is an international and collaborative endeavour. Professor Mariana Mazzucato, from UCL, looked in detail at this issue in an independent report for the European Commission, as she says: to answer the critical question of how to direct innovation to solve the pressing global challenges of our time”. That includes improving human health, enabling sustainable economic growth and providing clean water – challenges which by their nature are broad, involve numerous overlapping disciplines and require cooperation and collaboration.

For science to progress, we need a constant, steady flow of people between sectors, subjects and countries, with the knowledge and expertise they bring. When it comes to collaborating across borders, the watchwords are choice and agility. While we welcome the focus on high-skilled migration in last month’s Immigration White Paper, its proposals are based on the existing visa system, seen by many as bureaucratic, time-consuming, costly and not fit for purpose. As we outlined to the House of Commons in their inquiry into an immigration system that works for science and innovation, a welcoming, agile mobility framework needs to allow scientists to choose the type of international collaboration that suits their research and their life. That might be a permanent move to a new country, a year-long placement, a couple of weeks spent working with a new piece of equipment or a conference visit.

Role of the Framework Programmes

While the funding provided by EU framework programmes is a significant benefit of participation, it is one of many highly valued advantages. The UK has benefitted from Horizon 2020 to the tune of €5.1bn so far, with the programme due to run until the end of 2020. Science and engineering are major beneficiaries: in 2014-15, 23p in every £1 of research funding for UK university chemistry departments came from EU sources, amounting to £55m.

By developing member case studies and analysing publications in our portfolio of journals, we set out to confirm and further illustrate the benefits beyond funding that UK participation in EU Framework Programmes brings, including:

  1. More impactful science.

    In line with research by the Royal Society and Elsevier, we found that internationally collaborative publications have a high level of citations, one measure of research impact. Both the Royal Society’s research and our own showed in addition that EU-funded research produces papers with higher average citations.
  2. Uniqueness, prestige and scale.

    A budget of €77bn, more than 20,000 research projects, 154 countries. These big numbers describe Horizon 2020, the current EU Framework Programme, one of the largest science and innovation programmes in the world, and internationally recognised for its prestige. Professor Peter Coveney, interviewed for one of our case studies, sums it up well: “I may be happy playing in the English Premier League but really, I want to be part of the UEFA Champion’s League. We need to be able to work alongside the best.

Findings from our research

Our findings support and build on research by others in this area such as the Wellcome Trustthe Royal SocietyCancer Research UK, and the Confederation of British Industry. They clearly show how the EU framework programmes allow researchers and businesses to access funds, large-scale collaborative networks and facilities, global markets and to leverage additional investment.

We also found EU-funded scientific research can play a critical role in informing and shaping policy locally and globally: a project called PharmaSea is helping make better global policy on protecting marine biodiversity, and the EUROCHAMP-2020 network of cloud chambers is helping set better air quality standards.

We also found the framework programmes enable different types of mobility to support different career stages and needs. They create opportunities for scientists to develop new skills, for companies to recruit the people they need wherever they come from, and to train the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs. Early career researchers are typically less likely to collaborate internationally so, through these programmes, are able to gain experience, mentoring and even opportunities to supervise students that they don’t have at their home institution.

Lessons from the cutting edge of chemistry

This piece of work helped us to understand the benefits of participating in the EU framework programmes from the perspective of scientists. It adds to the large body of evidence for continued participation in these programmes, and of their uniqueness globally. Yet our favourite thing about it was learning about the cutting-edge science researchers and entrepreneurs in our chemistry community have been doing.

These pan-European collaborations have advanced the sciences of marine biochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, catalysis, and materials chemistry. They are enabling leaps forward in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, helping us understand how to improve air quality and finding and faster, more effective pathways to discovering new materials and medicines. They support the commercialisation of technologies that could have an environmental impact equivalent to taking two million cars a year off the road. They reduce the cost and carbon footprint of microfiltration devices with applications ranging from air filtration to antibody production and measure the pH of water using smart sensors that don’t require costly regular recalibration.

Talking to those in our community to create these case studies has shown us there’s so much more to European funding initiatives than just the money itself. That said, the qualitative results of our research is backed up by the data – UK researchers led one in five projects in Horizon 2020 in 2015-16. No matter what results from Brexit negotiations this year and beyond, if we’re to play our part in solving these huge global challenges, it is absolutely crucial that UK science is associated to these programmes in the long-term.

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