UK, EU ‘must urgently agree’ deep science partnership

A new, deep and special partnership in science and innovation between the European Union and the United Kingdom must be agreed upon as a matter of urgency, a policy briefing published by the Centre for Global Higher Education, or CGHE, on 1 November has recommended. CGHE is based at the UCL Institute of Education in the UK.

“The continuity of high quality research, innovation and ultimately the status of the UK as a leading knowledge economy depends on it,” the briefing says.

The authors Dr Ludovic Highman, senior research associate at CGHE, and Dr Vassiliki Papatsiba, CGHE co-investigator, warn that viewed from Brussels, the days of negotiating UK “opt outs” to secure British membership will soon be over and there will be a new policy framework of “opt ins” in which the EU “no longer has any reason to do special deals for a difficult but valued member”.

“The UK needs to secure continued and sustainable co-operation in research, not demand concession on the assumption that the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU,” they conclude.

The paper, “Creating a New Relationship in Research, Science and Innovation with the EU”, draws on the CGHE’s research project, Brexit, Trade, Migration and Higher Education, which focuses on UK higher education institutions’ perceptions of and responses to Brexit and associated challenges.

In the briefing, Highman and Papatsiba outline why clarity on the future of the UK’s research relationship with the EU is so necessary. They argue that the UK government’s 6 September position paper, “Collaboration on Science and Innovation: A future partnership”, fails to provide much-needed detail and overlooks key issues.

Highman and Papatsiba say that the UK has committed to underwriting the current awards made by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, after the UK leaves the EU, but research collaboration relies on interaction, consistency and trust forged over long time-frames, the briefing says.

“Furthermore, with the EU considering doubling its research and innovation budget to a whopping €160 billion [US$186 billion] (European Commission, July 2017), missing out in the future could be more disadvantageous than past and current levels of awarded EU funding suggest.”

No concrete plans

Yet the briefing points out that the UK government has failed to propose concrete plans for realising a new relationship with the EU post-Brexit.

While Prime Minister Theresa May has called for continuing collaboration with European partners on science and innovation, the only position taken is that the UK would like to have a “more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country”.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received roughly €48 billion from the EU, of which €8.8 billion was for research, development and innovation, one fifth of the total funds. The UK contribution to the EU’s research and development budget during this time period was in the region of €5.4 billion, signifying that the UK gained €3.4 billion net from the EU in this sphere.

“In the UK research system, the net €3.4 billion from the EU R&D budget can be compared to the equivalent of receiving more than a year’s worth of funds from the UK's seven research councils,” the authors say.

They point out that in absolute terms the EU research funding is crucially important to research-intensive universities.

But while four out of five of the top recipients of EU research grants were the University of Oxford (€174.5 million), University of Cambridge (€172.1 million), University College London (€159.1 million) and Imperial College London (€120 million), dependency was larger in some of the middle players.

Indeed, more than 40 middle-sized UK universities received income from EU government bodies exceeding 20% of their total income.

The government’s position paper, said: “It is the UK’s ambition to build on its uniquely close relationship with the EU, so that collaboration on science and innovation is not only maintained, but strengthened.

“Therefore, as part of the new, deep and special partnership, the UK will seek an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU that will support and promote science and innovation across Europe both now and in the future."

But while it placed STEM subjects at the heart of the envisaged new partnership – including health and life sciences, engineering, nuclear research, quantum technologies, space exploration, marine science and clean energy – it made no mention of arts, humanities and social sciences.

This is despite the latter making up around a sixth of research funding in 2014-15 – £100.4 million compared to £497.5 million for STEM related subjects – and being dependent on EU research funding for between a fifth and a quarter of their overall research funding, making them more vulnerable.

The position paper shows that the UK government is most interested in the big budget Research and Innovation Framework programmes, including the space, nuclear R&D and defence R&D programmes, which pool infrastructure. But it fails to specify what scale of contribution the UK could make or how it would secure its participation, Papatsiba and Highman say.

An “equally unresolved” issue is that of researcher mobility, which is mentioned only once in the paper with the vague statement that the UK “will continue to welcome the brightest and best”. A Home Office policy document leaked in September suggests that after Brexit EU citizens will be treated the same as non-EU citizens. This will mean reduced rights to stay and “an inevitable drop in mobility” and “numbers”.

“This is bound to have implications for the UK’s attractiveness,” Papatsiba and Highman say.

In addition, the UK will lose its right to vote on the thematic directions of the EU Work Programmes or its ability to shape funding allocation rationales. This will mean the loss of the most vocal supporter of basing funding only on excellence.

The authors say the government position paper relies on too many unresolved issues falling into place in order to enable the EU and UK to build a new partnership in research, science and innovation.

These include whether the EU will allow the UK to stay in or join programmes or influence them; whether either the EU or the UK will modify their policies on free movement or immigration of academics; whether individual members might block association agreements and whether agreement can be reached on how much the UK will have to pay to buy into programmes.