Government unveils post-Brexit science position paper

The United Kingdom will seek a far-reaching agreement to strengthen science and innovation collaboration with European partners post-Brexit and would prefer to design a new type of deal than build on existing precedents, according to a position paper published by the government last week.

The paper calls for a “dialogue with the EU” on the shape of a future science and innovation agreement, reflecting “our joint interest in promoting continued close cooperation, for the benefit of UK and European prosperity”.

It concludes: “There are a range of existing precedents for collaboration that the UK and the EU can build on, but our uniquely close relationship means there may be merit in designing a more ambitious agreement. The UK hopes to have a full and open discussion with the EU about all of these options as part of the negotiations on our future partnership.”

The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, said: “This paper sends a clear message to the research and innovation community that we value their work and we feel it is crucial that we maintain collaboration with our European partners after we exit.

“We want to attract the brightest minds to the UK to build on the already great work being done across the country to ensure that our future is bright and we grow this important sector.”

But the campaigning group Scientists for EU – which supported the ‘Remain’ vote in the referendum on EU membership and is now campaigning to prevent Brexit – said the position paper is “utterly devoid of any suggestions for bridging Brexit obstacles”, does not make “any attempt to acknowledge and creatively tackle the hard issues” around future collaboration with EU partners, and “merely sells warm dreamy fog”.

Fullest possible relationship

The government paper stresses the value of science and innovation, documents the current state of UK-EU science relations and strongly expresses the UK’s desire for the fullest possible relationship with EU partners in science in future.

In a reminder of what the UK has to offer, it says the government is committed to strengthening the UK’s world-leading science base, which “includes four of the world’s top 10 universities, a world-class intellectual property regime, and more Nobel Laureates than any country outside the United States”. It notes that with only 0.9% of the global population and 4.1% of researchers, the UK accounted for 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles in 2013.

Previously the government – via a plan called Building our Industrial Strategy, published in January – has committed to additional funding for research and innovation worth £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) per year by 2020-21, the paper says.

It argues that international collaboration is essential for supporting cutting-edge research and development in fields as varied as space exploration, clean energy and medical research by providing access to infrastructure, expertise, data, and population aggregation at a scale beyond the reach of any individual nation.

Partnerships between the UK and other EU member states significantly increase the impact and influence of EU science and research activity, it says. For example, in the field of medical and health research, the share of EU co-authored publications in the top 10% of highly cited publications is higher when collaborating with the UK, the paper says.

The UK is also a “top five collaboration partner” for each of the other 27 member states, and contributed almost 20% of the total research work carried out within EU health programmes between 2007 and 2016.

And there are important shared common challenges for the UK and EU, such as dealing with climate change, tackling infectious diseases and security in the face of threats and natural hazards that can “best be met by continued collaboration amongst the top scientists across Europe and the UK seeks to continue to play its full part in helping European partners meet these fundamental challenges”.

The position paper says the UK will look to build on its special relationship with the EU and establish an ambitious agreement on science and innovation that ensures the valuable research links between us continue to grow.

Compromises on movement

There has been much debate in the UK, reported in University World News, about how this can be achieved. For instance, how could the UK maintain its involvement in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme and the EU’s Erasmus+ student and academic exchange scheme post-Brexit, and will that involve making compromises on the free movement of people, which the government has pledged to end?

The government paper says the UK will continue to collaborate with European partners through international (non-EU) organisations, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research or CERN, the European Space Agency, and the European Bioinformatics Institute.

But it will also seek a “new, deep and special partnership” with the EU that will “support and promote science and innovation across Europe both now and in the future”.

It says: “The agreement on science and innovation should provide a framework for future cooperation, with channels for regular dialogue between leading researchers and innovators in the UK and the EU.”

The scope of the agreement should be broad and make room for new areas of research, the paper says.

But although it documents the current arrangements in which the UK collaborates with the EU on science – including the Research and Innovation Framework Programmes of which the largest is Horizon 2020, space programmes, nuclear R&D, defence R&D, and membership of EU science and innovation agencies and other bodies – it doesn’t specify what terms of continued membership the UK is seeking in each case.

Instead it merely notes the different types of arrangements that exist. For instance, in relation to Horizon 2020, it notes that non-EU countries currently participate with either associated country status or with automatic third country status in which countries usually fund their own participation, and refers to non-associated third countries such as South Korea and Canada having agreed with the EU to increase cooperation through Horizon 2020, for example, through co-funding mechanisms for specified research projects.

Negotiate access

Responding to the publication of the paper, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, welcomed the government's commitment to maintaining collaboration on research with the UK’s European partners after Brexit, and to “continuing to attract the brightest minds to the UK’s universities”.

He said: “The best way to achieve this is for the UK government to negotiate access to, and influence over, the next EU research and innovation programme.

“The UK is one of the main players in the EU's research and innovation programme and benefits enormously from the collaboration and access to networks this provides. This allows researchers to collaborate with world-leading experts on life-changing research, with knock-on benefits for the economy, society and individuals in the UK.”

Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group – of leading research universities – said the group is keen to work with the government to flesh out what an “ambitious agreement” could look like and that a good first step would be to ensure that UK institutions can continue to participate in the Horizon 2020 programme until its end.

“We urge the UK government to secure an agreement with the EU which will allow our universities to remain core partners in European research projects from the day we leave the EU,” he said.

He also warned that ensuring EU nationals have the certainty they need to plan for a future studying or working in the UK is essential in order to attract excellent students and academics to the country.

‘Empty paper’

Scientists for EU accused the government of producing an empty paper and pinning its hopes on solutions emerging “from the ether”.

In a statement it said that at stake was a “truly world-leading relationship” in science between the UK and EU which everyone in British and European science wants to maintain and which is a critical link in the centre of the European science, technology and innovation ecosystem.

“However, this team of countries participating in the EU science programme abides by certain rules and understandings. The government paper does not make clear how the UK plans to meet with or negotiate those obligations.”

It said the obvious barriers are the amount of funding, recognition of European Court of Justice or ECJ jurisdiction for project-level dispute settlement and abiding by or renegotiating EU and EFTA – European Free Trade Association – free movement of people.

Dr Rob Davidson, director of Scientists for EU, said: “The key problems for science are the two ‘red lines’ of restricting freedom of movement and not being subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ. This paper fails to address either of these and as a result perpetuates the damage being caused to UK research and technology by Brexit uncertainty.”

Scientists for EU has suggested the UK should offer to help develop the research and innovation capacities of struggling European regions as a way to leverage itself into closer collaboration on the science programme. They also suggest following the Swiss model of international disputes being settled by a bespoke dispute resolution mechanism, while projects funded subscribe to the ECJ; and copying the Swiss in allowing freedom of movement but demanding that jobs are offered to local Swiss nationals before being advertised internationally.