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Economic studies, evolutionary biology, and nanotechnology are most at risk if the United Kingdom left the European Union.

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'Brexit' would hit U.K. research hard, report says

Leaving the European Union would cause a steep drop in research funding for scientists in the United Kingdom, according to a new study—and it's unclear whether the country can "buy its way back" into European funding schemes under favorable conditions.

The United Kingdom is “significantly more dependent on E.U. funding than other countries such as Germany,” warns the study, published today by research software company Digital Science. “Our success in gaining European funding is masking serious deficiencies” in both government and business commitment to R&D investment, adds the report, entitled What is the real cost of Brexit for the UK’s research base?

The United Kingdom is set to vote on whether to leave the European Union in a referendum next month, and there has been a sharp debate about the impact a departure would have on science. The new study provides fodder primarily for the anti-Brexit camp.

The United Kingdom is a scientific powerhouse and the fifth largest producer of scientific papers worldwide, but it only spends 1.63% of its gross domestic product on research, the report notes. Nineteen countries spend more than that, including Germany (2.85% in 2013, according to the World Bank) and France (2.23%).

The U.K. efficiency is a “double-edged sword,” says Daniel Hook, managing director of Digital Science in London and a co-author of the report. “The U.K. has been very successful in acquiring E.U. funding because our research base is good,” Hook tells ScienceInsider. But “this success has gone on for long enough that [E.U. funding] has become structural for us,” he adds. As the report puts it: “Rather than allowing the UK to gain an even better position on the global stage by having an excess of funds to deploy, EU funds have been used to prop up and cover systemic issues with how we chose to fund research in the UK both at a governmental and corporate level.”

Between 2006 and 2015, U.K. organizations received about £8 billion ($11.6 billion) in competitive research grants from the European Union, while about £25 billion came from the United Kingdom's own research councils in the same period, the study says. The disciplines most vulnerable if the United Kingdom says farewell to the European Union are economics (94% of government funding from E.U. sources), evolutionary biology (67%), and nanotechnology (62%), according to the report.

As Brexit supporters have pointed out, European funding wouldn't necessarily evaporate if the United Kingdom left the bloc. The United Kingdom would likely seek an association agreement with the European Union's research programs, allowing its researchers to compete for E.U. science funds in return for a lump sum paid by the government. (Other non-E.U. countries, including Norway and Israel, have similar agreements.) However, the United Kingdom may not be in a strong negotiating position.

The past decade, only £3.5 billion of the research funding awarded by the European Union has gone to non–member states, 7% of the European Union's total research budget, according to the report. A postdivorce agreement with the United Kingdom would mean that a much bigger chunk would go to a non–member state in the future.

“It is a careless and risky assumption to make, to presume that U.K. universities would or could continue to benefit disproportionately from E.U. research support” if it leaves the Union, a spokesperson for Universities UK says. “While the U.K. university sector may not need the E.U. to survive, E.U. support and networks play an important role in allowing U.K. universities to thrive,” the spokesperson adds.

The analysis used a grants database called Dimensions, by Digital Science's daughter company ÜberResearch, which contains information about $1 trillion of funded research from 200 funders.