Loss of UK from EU research programme would hit basic science networks hardest

24 Jun 2020 | News

Scientists based in the UK dominate Horizon 2020’s excellent science programme and make key collaborative links between institutes in Europe, study shows

brexit research

The loss of the UK from the EU’s big research and innovation programme would cause a big disruption to basic science networks in Europe, a new study reveals.

In a report published Tuesday in Chaos, by AIP Publishing, researchers from the University of Zaragoza examined a network of 19,200 research groups to determine how removing UK research organisations affects the three core Horizon 2020 programmes: excellent science, industrial leadership and societal changes.

The study puts a lens on the “dense web of interrelations” formed by the universities, companies and research centres participating in the EU’s €77 billion seven-year programme, which winds up at the end of this year.

The main finding is that the excellent sciences section of the programme, which includes grants issued by the European Research Council (ERC), suffers a “bigger negative impact” when the authors removed the UK, reflecting the country’s core role.

After looking at all the collaborative networks formed between institutes across Europe, the authors were able to see that UK-based scientists are especially good at “facilitating connections” between organisations for blue-sky, fundamental research. UK nodes provide an “important connectivity” between countries that otherwise have a “scarce connectivity”, or lower than average record of collaboration.

By comparison, in the two other big parts of Horizon 2020, industrial leadership and societal challenges, the removal of “UK nodes” has a smaller impact than “the elimination of the same number of nodes at random”, reflecting the UK’s more limited leadership role in these programmes.

“The analysis reveals that the UK had developed a leading role in excellent science,” says Jesus Gomez Gardenes, researcher at the Institute for Biocomputation and Physics of Complex Systems in the University of Zaragoza and one of the study’s authors. “On the global level, Brexit is then clearly not a good thing for this programme,” he said.

The UK currently receives more than a fifth of all the ERC's prestigious grants, accounting for more than £3 billion. UK institutions have taken about £5 billion of the overall Horizon 2020 funding pot.

Asked about the policy implications of his findings, Gardenes said, “In this excellent science programme, the UK is highly dominant and important. It’s clear they have to try and continue in the EU’s basic science framework.”

Science bodies on both sides of the Channel want these close existing research links to continue, but with EU-UK trade talks at an impasse, there’s still no guarantee the UK will be able to participate in the next EU research programme Horizon Europe. Countries outside the EU can take part, as associate members, but the cost and terms of membership have still to be negotiated.

Should the UK be barred from participating in Horizon Europe, which starts in January 2021 and is worth about €94 billion, institutions from other EU countries will inevitably replace the dominant UK players.

“But we’d have to wait some years to see how the funds were re-allocated. Maybe there’s countries that will gain projects and benefit from Brexit, but we can’t tell which ones yet,” Gardenes said.

Uncertainty over the UK’s future in EU research programmes is already harming UK science. Last year, the Royal Society discovered that the UK’s annual share of EU research funding fell from €1.49 billion in 2015 the year before the referendum vote to leave the EU, to €1.06 billion in 2018, largely caused by a reduction in grant applications from UK researchers.

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