Experts fear damaging impact of Brexit on EU science

The impact of a possible British withdrawal from the European Union after its ground-shaking Brexit referendum on 24 June will be felt by universities and research groups receiving EU funding via the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

But it could also weaken the ability of the European Research Area to compete globally with the US and other emerging science powers in Asia, experts say.

For Britain, continued access to the EU’s Horizon 2020, one of the world’s largest research funding programmes, would have to be negotiated as part of a post-Brexit agreement and would require paying into the research fund, if the UK is no longer contributing to the EU budget.

Sources in Brussels said for the UK to continue with an associate agreement would be the preferred option for the EU. The UK is one of the largest contributors to the EU budget and the fear in Brussels is that Brexit could reduce the overall Horizon 2020 funding pot – currently €80 billion (US$89 billion) for 2014-20 – and jeopardise the scale of some collaborative research projects.

Britain’s departure could also reduce Horizon 2020's reputation for excellence with the loss of a top research nation.

“Brexit will weaken the European Research Area [ERA] and reduce its radiance,” Germany’s Max Planck Society said in a statement on Tuesday, adding it would not be easy to replace some of Europe’s strongest scientific brains. “An ERA without Britain is difficult to imagine.”

The UK has been a major beneficiary of EU research funding and is due to gain from the estimated €80 billion slated for 2014-20 to researchers in EU member states and associated nations, which currently include Norway, Switzerland and Israel whose contribution to the research budget is proportionate to their gross domestic product.

But agreement on accessing EU research funding may have to be part of an overall settlement between the EU and Britain. Although less politically fraught compared to trade agreements, for example, it could still take years to agree.

With the future of the UK’s relationship still unclear, the country “has taken a big step backward in a fast-paced world, from leading very exciting EU science from the helm, to being in a confused relationship at the fringe”, according to Mike Galsworthy of the campaign group Scientists for EU.

Short term reassurances

In the aftermath of the 24 June referendum, UK scientists were concerned that EU research grant applications would be jeopardised in the current uncertain climate.

European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas attempted to stem widespread fears in universities and among the research community saying UK researchers remain eligible to apply for Horizon 2020 funding. “Until the end of the [Brexit] negotiations, the UK remains a member of the EU and therefore with all the rights and obligations, including in relation to research programmes like Horizon 2020,” Moedas said on Monday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament’s House of Commons on Tuesday: “All [Horizon 2020] contracts will be honoured. Obviously the key decision will be post-leaving, about how we put in arrangements to safeguard the excellent research facilities and universities we have,” he said.

However, Anne Glover, vice-principal at Aberdeen University and former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, said the immediate future for universities and research institutes “looks very bleak”.

"I’ve been trying to get some clarity to find out what will happen, because there are people today preparing grant applications for Horizon 2020 calls. What I’m assuming is that we can continue to apply and we could still be awarded a programme as long as the start date was before the formal date of our Brexit. That’s my best guess," she said in an interview in Science magazine.

“I’m very pessimistic about how we will maintain scientific excellence. Just even getting the best minds from around the world to work with us, whether that’s by attracting them to come here or the ability for us to go elsewhere and to work in partnership with people. There will be barriers to this,” she said.

She was worried that when the grant proposals were being assessed there could be questions about the long-term investment of UK partners. “It may be sufficient to put a question mark over those proposals, or at least the UK involvement.”

Losing British partners

Richard Hudson, CEO of Science Business, which closely monitors Horizon 2020 funding, said planning for really big research and innovation projects “begins at least a few years in advance, so many potential partnerships under the 2018-20 work programme are already in discussion”.

“All of this fruitful dialogue will stop dead – at least if there was to have been a significant UK role – unless the Commission clarifies the rules now,” he said.

Stephane Boissel, chief executive of French biotech company TxCell, told the pharmaceutical industry publication The Pharma Letter: “We are currently looking at several collaborative programmes under EU funding, and we’re going to be looking at what partners we can bring in. We cannot bring in UK partners with this uncertainty.”

“Until we know if we will still be eligible for EU funding in the partner programme with a UK group, it’s impossible. These programmes can last for five years – what if in two years we are asked to prop the UK partner up? What will happen to the whole programme? What will happen to our funding? Quite frankly, I don’t know, ” he said.

UK Higher education and Science minister Jo Johnson said Thursday: "It is business as usual for Horizon 2020. I would be concerned about any discrimination against UK participants and am in close touch with (EU science) Commissioner Moedas on these issues.

"But the prospect of Brexit inevitably poses new challenges, at a time when research itself is becoming more collaborative, and more global. Our task now is to chart a course that protects the UK’s status as a full-spectrum scientific power."

Association agreements

While Horizon 2020 funding is open to non-EU members under specially negotiated agreements, these are conditional upon the free movement of people between that country and other EU countries. British voters’ opposition to free movement was one of the issues that led to the referendum outcome to leave the EU.

The terms of association differ slightly by country. However, associate members do not have a role in the negotiations that shape EU research funding. Third countries can also benefit from research funding.

UK universities are by far the most successful in attracting such funding, taking 71% of the total funds awarded to the UK during the Seventh Framework Programme, which preceded Horizon 2020. UK businesses attracted 18% of the funds, according to the Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy.

Difficult times

The referendum outcome comes at a difficult time for EU research, with Switzerland, another strong research power and partial associate member of Horizon 2020, so far unable to reach agreement with the EU over the terms of its participation.

Switzerland’s continued participation is contingent on accepting free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU, in question since its anti-immigration referendum of 2014. But any hope of meeting the February 2017 deadline, when its current partial association agreement expires, has receded with the EU tied up with the fallout from Brexit, Swiss sources said.

This article was amended on 30 June to include comments by Jo Johnson.