11 Oct 2017   |   News

UK scientists told: in no-deal Brexit scenario they will have to leave EU research projects

The Commission has for the first time made clear the position of UK grantees after Brexit, in a sign the EU is laying the ground for the UK to leave without a deal

The EU Commission has for the first time laid out how it will handle its scientific relationships with the UK after the country leaves in 2019, in a sign that Brussels has begun thinking about emergency steps should Brexit negotiations fail.  

In a notice posted on the research section of the Commission website on October 6, UK researchers are informed that if the UK does not agree on a new science cooperation arrangement with Brussels after it leaves in March 2019, they will not receive any more EU funding or will have to leave existing projects.

“If the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU during the grant period without concluding an agreement with the EU ensuring in particular that British applicants continue to be eligible, you will cease to be eligible to receive EU funding or be required to leave the project on the basis of Article 50 of the grant agreement,” the notice says.

The note also reaffirms the eligibility of UK legal entities to fully participate and receive funding from the Horizon 2020 research programme while the UK remains a member of the EU.

While it removes lingering doubt about the status of UK researchers in EU research projects in the immediate period after Brexit, the notice “Will cause immediate uncertainty from UK applicants and from applicants who were thinking of including UK partners,” said Mike Galsworthy, founder of research advocacy group Scientists for EU.

It raises the prospect of huge disruption for projects, which would need to be re-adjusted mid-flight, Galsworthy said. That would make life particularly complicated for projects headed by a UK partner.

But the notice also serves another purpose of turning up the heat on negotiators, by raising the stakes of a no-deal, said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Universities, an association of 23 universities.

“Research is a very successful UK domain in EU policy, so they certainly can turn up the heat there and create internal UK turmoil to change their minds,” Deketelaere said.

Preparing for talks to fail

Shortly after the vote to leave in 2016, the UK government made a commitment to underwrite any EU funding awarded before March 31 2019, even when projects continue beyond the UK’s departure.

But whether the UK will continue to pay into Horizon 2020 after it leaves the EU is part of the negotiations, with the EU arguing that the UK has a legal commitment to do so.

It now appears the EU is preparing for the UK to crash out of the EU without agreeing a future deal on science.

On Monday, UK prime minister Theresa May said that the government is preparing for "every eventuality” from the Brexit negotiations, indicating once again that walking away without a deal is a possibility for the UK.

With exit talks between UK and EU negotiators floundering, the president of the European Council Donald Tusk, in a speech made in Brussels a day later, suggested the EU is also moving into an emergency footing and would soon start planning for no deal if the impasse continues.

But if no deal will hit science immediately, as the Commission now makes clear, the UK must not take that risk, said Galsworthy. “We need a move to insulate science as soon as possible from all of this no deal talk, or it will be detrimental to everyone,” he said.

Everyone is better off with a decent deal, Deketelaere said. “So let's all play it according to the rules of the game and this still can end well, but the unrealistic approaches of the UK government have to stop. It's an illusion that they can put pressure on the EU with no deal threats.”

Close partnership

In a position paper on EU science published in September, the UK government said that it wants to have a “more ambitious and close partnership” with EU science programmes after Brexit than any that has previously been agreed with non-members, including Switzerland and Norway.

The UK also said it is prepared to contribute money into Framework Programme 9, due to start two years post-Brexit in 2021, as well as to research linked to Euratom, the European nuclear agency, and Galileo and Copernicus, the EU space programmes.

In response to this offer, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas said that the EU will not consider a post-Brexit research partnership with the UK until there is clarity about the size of the Brexit divorce bill, cross-border citizens’ rights and the Irish border.

The UK is likely to have to pay at least €1 billion a year, equivalent to what its scientists currently receive from the Horizon 2020 programme, for some sort of associate membership like non-EU countries Norway, Switzerland and Israel.

The paper also reaffirmed the pledge to guarantee funding while the UK is an EU member, but the lack of detail riled researchers, who said that it remained unclear whether British scientists will be eligible for EU funding after 2019.

UK science has been disrupted during the pre-Brexit limbo. “Uncertainty about whether British researchers will be eligible for grants after we leave in 2019 is already having a chilling effect,” said Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar in September. “Wellcome knows of some who have already been excluded from grants, abandoned potential collaborations, or chosen to work in another country with more certain funding.”