UK is ready to pay to stay in EU’s research programmes

The United Kingdom's Prime Minister, Theresa May, said last Monday she is seeking full continued participation in the European Union’s next research and innovation programmes post Brexit, which the UK would willingly pay for.

In a speech on science and modern industrial strategy, she said she wanted the UK to have a “deep science partnership with the European Union, because this is in the interests of scientists and industry right across Europe”.

Spelling out what that commitment meant, she said: “The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&T [the Euratom Research and Training programme].”

She said it was in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU to do so.

“Of course, such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with that contribution and the benefits we bring.”

She said the UK was ready to discuss these details with the European Commission as soon as possible.

Universities UK has welcomed the prime minister’s comments. Responding to the speech, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities UK has called for the UK to secure participation, as a full associate country, in the next EU research and innovation programme and the successor Erasmus+ scheme. It was very positive to hear the prime minister confirm that is the government’s intention.”

Theresa May did not actually mention Erasmus+ in her speech, but she did say that the UK will “always be open to the brightest and best researchers” and that when the UK leaves the EU she “will ensure” that there is no change to the current situation, where more than half of the UK’s resident researcher population were born in another country.

“I know how deeply British scientists value their collaboration with colleagues in other countries through EU-organised programmes,” she said.

“And the contribution which UK science makes to those programmes is immense.

“I have already said that I want the UK to have a deep science partnership with the European Union, because this is in the interests of scientists and industry right across Europe.”

New immigration policy needed

Welcoming her commitment, Jarvis said international collaboration is essential to the success of research and innovation in the UK. “The EU research and innovation programme provides a ready-made platform for collaborating with key European partners, including six of the UK’s top 10 research partners.”

But he stressed that is also important that the UK develops a new immigration policy that “supports universities’ ability to attract qualified international students and talented international staff, with minimal barriers”.

On this front, May also seemed to signal a change in tone. Universities have long complained that international students are included in the immigration figures from which the government sets its targets for reducing immigration.

They say they are concerned about the potential impact on international student recruitment of the government crackdown on immigration – a legacy of May in her previous role as Home Secretary – and the lack of post-study work visas.

But in her speech May said: “The United Kingdom today is at the centre of a web of international collaboration.

“Our immigration system supports this, with no cap on the number of students who can come to our universities, and thousands coming every year, learning from some of the finest academics and contributing to the success of some of the best universities in the world.

“Indeed, since 2010 the number of overseas students coming to study at UK universities has increased by almost a quarter.

“The UK will always be open to the brightest and the best researchers to come and make their valued contribution.”


May’s speech was an upbeat promotion of the UK’s new industrial strategy, aimed a capitalising on the technological revolution.

She said UK global leadership in science and innovation is one of the country’s greatest assets, with Britain having been for centuries a cradle of scientific achievement, she said.

Rattling off a list of great achievements by British scientists – including Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, optics and gravitation; Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction; Frank Whittle’s turbo-jet technology; Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on the structure of insulin and the Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the internet – May said scientific research is a noble pursuit and a public good whether or not it leads directly to a commercial application.

“But when a discovery does have the potential to create or transform an industrial sector, time and again British entrepreneurs have been the first to capitalise on it.”

The challenge now was to lead the fourth industrial revolution but to ensure that “every part of the country powers that success”. This was a reference to the problem that some parts of the country that once thrived on the innovation and technology used in the industrial revolution have since seen jobs and opportunities fall away – a factor in the disaffection with the status quo that some believe lay behind the Brexit vote.

She said science had to be at the heart of a modern industrial strategy and the government had committed £7 billion (US$9.4 billion) in new funding for science, research and innovation, the largest increase in four decades.

But the plan is to go further, she said, setting a goal of research and development investment reaching 2.4% of gross domestic product by 2027.

The strategy identifies four grand challenges as the areas of enormous potential for the UK economy.

These are artificial intelligence and the big data revolution; rising global population and ever-increasing urbanisation, combined with new transport technologies changing how people and goods are moved around cities and countries; the demands of an ageing population; and the international determination to address climate change and deliver clean growth in future.

“By channelling our efforts into meeting them – building on our strengths in science, innovation and commerce – we can develop technologies to export around the world, we can grow whole new industries that bring good jobs across the UK, and we can achieve tangible social improvements for everyone in our society,” she said.