Oxford’s dependence on EU funds revealed

The University is determined to maintain European links that fund half the budget of several departments.

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The European Union provides over half of the external research funding for several Oxford departments, Cherwell can exclusively reveal.

The findings raise further concerns over the post-Brexit future of Oxford’s world-leading research, though the University stressed that they are “determined to maintain and build on” their European links.

The data, obtained by a Freedom of Information request sent by Cherwell, showed that EU funding to University departments in 2016/17 had increased by more than eight per cent over two years.

However, there was a wide disparity in different faculties’ reliance on European funds.

The Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics has the highest reliance on EU income. Over the last three financial years they received more than £1.5 million in EU funds, equivalent to 75 per cent of their external research income.

In the social sciences, the Centre of Criminology’s figure was 53 per cent while the Department of Sociology’s totalled 43 per cent.

Professor Melinda Mills, head of the Department of Sociology, told Cherwell: “The ERC has been essential to social science funding in the UK and Europe since we receive an almost equal amount as the other sciences. This is often not the case with national science foundations where the social sciences receive often less than 10%.”

She continued: “It is our hope that the UK continues to participate in the next European framework programme and in particular allows the freedom of movement of academics to work at Oxford in these innovative projects.”

The Department of Economics and the Department of Politics and International Relations had smaller but still significant figures, with 26 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

A spokesperson for the Department of Economics told Cherwell: “In the long-term, it is important for the Department of Economics, as for the University of Oxford as a whole, that agreement is reached on the UK’s continued participation in EU funding for research.”

The humanities, too, are subject to large EU research funding. The figure for the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty is almost 40 per cent while the History and English faculties’ budgets showed 34 and 24 per cent respectively.

Science departments also show significant reliance on European funds. The sub-department of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry’s EU income came to 42 percent of their external research income, with Organic Chemistry’s being 30 per cent and Chemical Biology 38 per cent.

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The Department of Physics received a particularly high amount of EU income. EU funding for Theoretical Physics amounted to 56 per cent of their external research funding, while Atmospheric, Oceanic & Planetary Physics had an average of 31 per cent.

The Department of Computer Science – which vice chancellor Louise Richardson described in 2016 as “the department most dependent on European Research Council funding” – received over £8 million from EU grants over the last three financial years. Meanwhile, the Mathematical Institute’s funding stood at 27 per cent of their external research funding.

Despite these figures and the UK’s impending exit from the European Union, the tens of millions coming into Oxford departments from the EU are secure for now.

According to EU and UK government officials’ joint report on the end of the first phase of Brexit negotiations, British participation in programmes funded under the EU’s research framework looks set to be supported until 2020.

However, the future of the University’s research funding is less clear beyond that.

Professor David Marshall, head of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, which has secured millions from EU research funds over the last five years, told Cherwell: “The current grants should not be affected, assuming that the UK government keeps its promise to underwrite awards already made.

“I have no reason to assume this will not be the case.

“In the future, the implications are serious. Despite reassurances that the UK government is committed to funding science, and indeed that the science budget is now protected in real terms, this does not match the experience of those of us working in fundamental ‘blue skies’ science.

“A lot of funding is now being channelled through innovation and overseas development calls… So the reality is that the funding for basic blue skies science is diminishing and we are increasingly dependent on the ERC to provide this.

“In terms of EU programmes, obviously it will be difficult to remain engaged at the same level without direct access to EU funding (we briefly experienced this following the Brexit vote when UK involvement became toxic due to fears it could jeopardise bids).

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“Collaboration is key to much of what we do, so withdrawal from EU programmes is a real issue. That said, we do manage to collaborate with programmes in the US and elsewhere through the Natural Environment Research Council and other funding, so while the situation will become significantly more challenging, this will not be the end to collaboration with the EU.”

A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “The University has strong research collaborations and partnerships across the European Union which we are determined to maintain and build on.

“It was encouraging to see December’s Phase I agreement state that the UK will continue to have full access to Horizon 2020 research funding until the closure of these programmes in 2020. This means that our researchers will be able to continue to apply for European funding until the end of 2020.

“However, the University is actively working for continued access to European research funding beyond 2020 and, more importantly, the free flow of knowledge and ideas that research partnerships can inspire.

“We are therefore working towards a Brexit settlement which will allow the University to continue to participate in future EU Framework programmes and conduct world-class collaborative research; host European Research Council grants; co-ordinate and host collaborative European projects and infrastructures; recruit and retain the best staff regardless of nationality; and recruit the best students regardless of nationality.”

The latest figures on British participation in Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme, showed that the University of Oxford receives the highest share of funding not just in the UK, but across the whole of the European Union.

Commenting on the publication of the data, Oxford University’s Head of Brexit Strategy, Professor Alastair Buchan, said: “The European framework programmes have been vital to research at Oxford, and have helped establish the University as one of the very best in the world.

“The benefit of this to the UK cannot be overestimated, and the current high standing of UK universities is undoubtedly at risk as a result of the UK leaving the European Union, whether our exit be hard or soft.”