6 December 2017
by Ludovic Highman

Will the UK get a Brexit deal on research – That’s the €160bn question

18 months have passed since the EU referendum and the government’s position on science and research is no clearer – we need certainty argues Dr Ludovic Highman in the Guardian.

The government isn’t committing to a Brexit deal for universities, but we need a new partnership in science and innovation between the EU and the UK – and we need it urgently. The stakes are high: the continued ability of British universities to produce high quality research, and of the UK to retain its status as a leading knowledge economy, depend upon it.

Last month, the EU told British Horizon 2020 applicants that in the event of a no deal Brexit, EU funding to current British recipients would stop, and that they may be required to leave the research project altogether. While the UK government has pledged to underwrite current Horizon 2020 recipients (plus those established between now and March 2019), a hard Brexit could change this if other priorities take precedence.

In March, the universities minister, Jo Johnson, was vague when discussing the government’s commitment to plugging the research funding gap: ‘It would be rash to pretend that it would be easy to replace it in the event of Brexit when we would not know what other claims there might be on the public purse, nor what state our economy would be in,’ he said. Over 18 months later, few would disagree that uncertainty still prevails.

A €160bn honeypot at stake

With the EU considering doubling its research and innovation budget to a whopping €160bn, missing out in the future could be even more disadvantageous than expected.

Leading innovative countries such as Finland have already decided on their priority areas for future EU research funding programmes. In Germany, the Fraunhofer department for the European research area, Europe’s largest organisation for applied research, recently published five guiding principles.

Meanwhile, the UK government is frantically trying to keep up, and offers no vision whatsoever, beyond a hoped-for ‘more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country’. This position has been described as ‘wishful thinking’ by the secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, a group that comprises Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial, Oxford and UCL.

Without a favourable deal, the UK will lose its seat at the table when it comes to influencing the future direction of the research funding programmes in its favour. So what actions should the UK government take?

A clear position

It’s imperative that the UK government makes its position clear before the end of the year. In particular, the status of EU citizens (including students and staff) must be guaranteed if the UK is to retain academic talent. The government also needs to decide on its financial contribution to the future EU framework programmes. This must be attractive to EU member states, not just to the UK, since they’re unlikely to be swayed by arguments based on the ‘excellence of British science’ and the assumption that the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU.

It’s also important that the government does not neglect the social sciences, humanities, arts and education in favour of its apparent emphasis on Stem subjects. The former are dependent on the EU for between a fifth and a quarter of their research funding.

The government has already tried to outline its position in a paper on the future science and research partnership, published in September. But the problem is that it relies on too many ‘ifs’: If the rules on association are modified to allow for the UK to join, and to enable the UK to influence the direction of the framework programmes; if the UK agrees to review its post-Brexit immigration policy for EU academics; if both parties agree on an appropriate UK contribution, then perhaps the EU and the UK can build a (re)new(ed) partnership in research, science and innovation.

What we need now is certainty. Viewed from Brussels, the days of negotiating UK ‘opt-outs’ to secure continued British membership will soon be over. We are now moving on to a completely different phase of the talks, in which we’re establishing the ‘opt-ins’. It’s time for the UK government to recognise that the EU no longer has any reason to do special deals for a difficult – if valued – member.