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The role of the EU in international research collaboration and researcher mobility

Between 2007 and 2014, the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions supported 3,454 UK-based researchers to move within the UK, to other EU countries and to non-EU countries.

Researchers worldwide can access ERC funding to carry out research in its member countries and the ERC encourages researchers from outside the EU to apply for grants to work in Europe.

A referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union (EU) will take place on 23 June 2016. This report sets out to show the role of the EU in UK-based researchers’ international collaborations and mobility.

This is the second part of a phased project gathering evidence about the influence of the UK’s relationship with the EU on research. It is intended to inform debate. The first phase looked at the role of the EU in funding research and the third phase focuses on the role of the EU in research regulation and policy.

Science today is almost always complicated and often interdisciplinary, frequently requiring contributions from a variety of participants based in different places. Researchers collaborate to pool intellectual and physical resources. They tend to seek the best and most appropriate partners they can, wherever in the world they may be found.

In 2015 over half of the UK’s research output was the result of an international collaboration and these collaborations are increasing – both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the UK’s research output. 60% of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with EU partners, an increasing share of the UK’s international publications. Looking at individual countries, UK-based researchers most frequently partner with scientists from the US, with seven EU countries also among the UK’s top ten strongest collaborators.

Mobility is often an important part of collaborating – enabling researchers to meet or share equipment, or spend time working in other facilities. This can be for short term visits or for longer term appointments. The EU’s ‘free movement of workers’ principle makes it easy for researchers to move within the EU, compared with the immigration rules and regulations that they have to comply with around the world – Box 5 provides a summary of immigration rules and regulations that researchers must comply with to work in different countries.

The EU also actively supports researcher mobility, both within the EU and to non-EU countries. Between 2007 and 2014, the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions supported 3,454 UK-based researchers to move within the UK, to other EU countries and to non-EU countries. This scheme also funds researchers to come and work in the UK. For example around 800 Chinese nationals were supported to work in the UK, complementing the around 850 UK-based researchers who were funded to work in China.

This international mobility contributes to the UK’s highly international research workforce; 28% of academic staff in UK universities are non-UK nationals (16% EU and 12% non-EU), as are half of PhD students. Between 1996 and 2011 7.6% of UK-affiliated researchers worked in other EU countries but not outside the EU for more than two years and 13.3% worked for more than two years outside the EU.

As well as supporting mobility, the EU has set out to create a European Research Area to improve the effectiveness of national research systems and their co-operation and competition. The EU actively supports international collaboration, within and beyond the EU. It does this through many different funding schemes, by facilitating the use of shared infrastructure and by supporting collaborative projects. The majority of EU Horizon 2020 research funding requires international collaboration and it also attracts non-EU countries to contribute financially to enable their researchers to take part.

The European Research Council (ERC), which is part of Horizon 2020 and funds frontier research purely on the basis of scientific excellence, has established a very strong international reputation. The UK is the top performer among participating countries in accessing these funds. Researchers from around the world can access ERC funding to carry out research in its member countries and the ERC encourages researchers from outside the EU to apply for grants to work in these countries.

Although this funding stream does not require international collaboration, 58% of papers with ERC funding have co-authors who are based in other countries. There are a number of other national and international agencies that work independently of the EU to support researchers to collaborate and move internationally. For example the UK government’s Newton Fund facilitates bilateral exchanges of researchers between the UK and 15 partner countries.

It is important to recognise that many factors, both professional and personal, influence researchers’ decisions to collaborate and move. Due to this complexity, it is not possible to quantify how patterns of collaboration and mobility might change if the UK were to leave the EU. However, it is clear that the EU plays a major role in supporting international collaboration and mobility through a number of globally recognized schemes and agreements, and withdrawal of the UK from the EU could affect the UK’s access to them. 

Should the UK choose to leave the EU, applying to become an Associate Member of Horizon 2020 could allow UK-based researchers to access many of these schemes, depending on the terms of the agreement and subject to a substantial financial contribution. In this case, however, UK legislators would have no role in decisions over how this money was spent. In addition, any change to the UK’s adherence to the EU free movement of workers principle could adversely affect the UK’s eligibility to take part in EU research funding schemes, as has been seen in Switzerland. This would also influence the immigration rules and regulations with which researchers entering or leaving the UK would need to comply.

Given the high level of international collaboration and mobility within the UK’s research base and the significance of the EU’s role in supporting and facilitating these, it is important to consider the impact of any changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU on future scientific collaboration and UK-based researchers.

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