The Brexit has caused considerable concern among British researchers—and perhaps for good reason. As in other European countries, research in the United Kingdom (UK) is funded to a considerable and rapidly increasing extent by the European Union (EU), or rather the European Research Council (ERC). And this funding is jeopardized if the UK leaves the EU.
Let's look at some numbers to put this concern into context. How much does the UK benefit from EU research funding, compared to other European countries?
Here I will focus on ERC grants, which are one of the main channels through which the EU funds research. ERC grants are awarded through a competition that is open to researchers from all EU member states, and also several non-EU countries that have special agreements with the EU. Grants are awarded based on scientific quality, and not based on the financial contributions of the participating countries; for example, Germany shouldn't (and doesn't) get most of the grants only because they contributed most of the money.
The figure below shows the number of ERC grants awarded to large (population > 30 million) countries that have received funding from the ERC. These numbers are based on the total number of ERC starting, consolidator, and advanced grants between 2007 and 2015. Green bars show the total number of grants; pink bars show the number of grants per million inhabitants, that is, corrected for population size.
Clearly, the UK receives far, far, far more ERC grants than other large countries. After correcting for population size, the UK even receives twice as many grants as France and Germany, and three to four times as many as Spain and Italy. (As a personal aside, ridiculing the quality of French research is one of my favorite pastimes. But this is clearly not justified: At least when looking at research funding, French researchers do quite well, per capita even slightly better than their German counterparts.)
So British researchers have a reason to be worried. Currently, they receive far more than their share in EU research funding, and this is about to end. Unlike the Brexit camp would have the British voters believe, the UK clearly gets more from the EU than they put in, at least when looking at research funding. (Of course, research only accounts for a small part of the EU budget, and across the board the UK probably puts in more than they receive—as do all rich countries.)
Why do British researchers get so many ERC grants? This is impossible to say, but I doubt that British researchers are more (or less) brilliant than researchers elsewhere. More likely, it is because British researchers are the only ones who can write grants in their native language. ERC grants are (almost) always written in English, giving the British a clear advantage, because good writing is an important determinant of success. In that sense, getting rid of the British may finally give the rest a fighting chance of getting their fair share of grant money.
The big six EU member states (UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland) plus Turkey get about 60% of all grants. And, as we've seen, many of these (too many perhaps) go to the UK. Does that mean that the UK is the most successful country of all in getting ERC grants? Surprisingly no—not by any stretch of the imagination. Below you see the same graph, but this time with all participating countries. The pink bars are important, because these indicate the number of grants corrected for population size.
When considering all participating countries, the UK is only at position 6. Interestingly, positions 1 and 2 are held by non-EU countries, Switzerland and Israel, that have signed agreements with the EU allowing them to compete for ERC grants. This shows that, even if a country is not part of the EU, it can still be successful in getting EU research funding. This may be a little beacon in the dark for British researchers, although it is by no means sure that the UK will be able to sign a similar agreement with the EU—if only because the UK is so successful (and large) that other countries may prefer to keep them out of the competition.
In general, when correcting for population size, small countries get more grants than big ones. About 1.5 times more, so the difference is considerable. Why would that be? Again, this is impossible to say, but human bias may play a role. Imagine that you're on the ERC committee, and you've just awarded 7 grants to Germans; and then you have to choose between a Danish and a German researcher. Wouldn't you feel obliged to go for the Dane? Probably you would, at least a little, whereas, based on population size, about 15 German grants should be awarded for every Danish grant. I don't know whether this explains the success of small countries, but, generally speaking, I'm sure that such trivial human factors do play a role in the decision process.