UK’s pledge on EU science funding ‘not enough’

British universities and scientists say a United Kingdom government statement promising to underwrite funding for approved European Union science projects “applied for before the UK leaves the EU” will only partially address concerns that they are being excluded from EU consortia following the British referendum to leave the EU on 23 June.

The government had come under increasing pressure to provide reassurances after Scientists for EU and other organisations published evidence of scientists and researchers turning down research jobs in the UK, and of UK consortium partners being told to step down from a leadership role so as not to jeopardise consortia applications involving other EU countries.

Philip Hammond, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer or finance minister, announced on 13 August that the Treasury “will underwrite the payments” of awards such as Horizon 2020 funding “even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU”.

Science policy experts say the government’s commitment to guarantee payment in case universities and other groups lose their EU funding before Brexit, as well as the timing of the announcement just weeks after the referendum was tantamount to acknowledging that the prospect of Brexit was causing huge uncertainty for the science sector, a net beneficiary of EU research funding.

No Brexit timetable has yet been set, and the nature of Britain’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit has still not been worked out by the government. Once that position has been determined negotiations are expected to take several years – a period of extended uncertainty for a sector that depends on long-term planning.

The Russell Group of research universities welcomed the Treasury announcement, saying the “commitment to underwrite competitive bids for Horizon 2020 funding, while we are still a member of the EU, will go a long way towards maintaining the networks, collaborations and critical mass of research activity”.

Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ organisation, Universities UK, said: "This is encouraging news that provides much needed stability for British universities during the transition period as the UK exits the EU and provides an important signal to European researchers that they can continue to collaborate with their UK colleagues as they have before."

The British Academy also welcomed the announcement. Alun Evans, chief executive of the British Academy, said: “This announcement is a positive indicator of the government's commitment to maintaining the UK's outstanding research and innovation base.”

Longer-term funding gap

However, the British Academy urged the government to have discussions on how to address the funding gap in the longer term. “Funding is not the only issue at stake. In the near future, the government must also consider the researchers themselves, the need for continued collaboration, and the implications for regulation,” Evans said.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said the government’s commitment would only cover EU grants already awarded “not opportunities lost and proposals abandoned”.

According to some reports, a number of UK proposals for Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship research programme, had to be abandoned after the referendum.

Others said the government’s commitment did not go far enough to clarify the future for EU-funded science in the UK.

Scientists for EU said in a statement the commitment was “a useful statement for UK scientists, European Commission officials and European governments to show to any European partners nervous about taking on UK scientists into their collaborative plans at this stage”.

But it added that underwriting Horizon 2020 projects “is a confirmation of the bare essentials, but nothing more”.

It described Hammond’s pledge as “the most minimal assurance possible” at a time when the sector needed confirmation that, should the UK leave the EU science programme, “the same amounts or more will be available directly” from the UK government.

“The government should be mindful that talented researchers currently contemplating positions in the UK will assess the long-term future of UK science,” Scientists for EU said.

The group also expressed concern over the fate of the European Regional Development Funds, which provide key support to science parks, innovative businesses and science-based initiatives. Some €3.6 billion (US$4 billion) has been allocated to the UK for the period 2014-20. Only a fraction of that has been spent.

Although current contracts will be honoured under the government’s commitment, funding allocations would be treated differently from EU research funding, proposing arrangements to assess which specific structural and investment funds signed after September but while the UK is still an EU member will be guaranteed.

Scientists for EU said this amounted to an extra layer of national bureaucracy even while the UK was an EU member.

The European Regional Development Fund, or ERDF, is providing £5 million (US$6.5 million) for the University of Manchester Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. The centre will concentrate on applied research and development of graphene in partnership with industry and other research organisations. The ERDF previously provided £23 million (US$30 million) for 2007-13 to the National Graphene Institute where some 200 scientists and engineers work.