07 Sep 2017   |   Viewpoint

Science, the unlikely new battleground in the Brexit talks

The UK wants a close relationship with EU science after Brexit. But there is much work to do if the UK government is to succeed in forging a closer partnership with the EU than exists with any other non-EU member

The UK put its cards on the table regarding its future in EU research in a policy document published on Wednesday, saying it wants to stay part of EU science initiatives after Brexit, including membership of EU science programmes and research linked to Euratom, the European nuclear agency, and Galileo and Copernicus, the EU space programmes.

It appears that lobbying by the great and good of the science establishment has driven home the message of the threat that Brexit poses to the UK’s research base.

According to the president and provost of University College London (UCL), Michael Arthur, top talent in UK universities is being poached, in what he called a “low-swoop” by the other EU members, while at the same time job applications from abroad for vacant posts at UCL are drying up.

Then there is funding. Science spending in the UK is already below 0.5 percent of GDP, a lower percentage than any other G8 nation. With the UK getting more Horizon 2020 grants than the money it puts in, Brexit means a cut in UK R&D spending. 

While scientists were pleased to see the UK government finally getting round to spelling out what kind of future research partnership it wants to have with the EU, they were not necessarily impressed by the contents of the position paper.

As one research lobbyist noted, in asking to retain virtually every benefit the UK has currently, the paper reads like “Have your cake and eat it writ large”.

How will the EU react?

The UK is asking for too much, many agreed.

“You know that the EU strategy is that the UK must be worse off after Brexit than before, so it is clear that the UK can ask for a lot but not necessarily get a lot,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, a lobby group of 23 top universities. 

EU negotiators have found all previous UK position papers, of which there have been 11 to date, wanting.

The EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, has dismissed them saying, "We must start negotiating seriously. We need UK papers that are clear."

With the science paper, the EU now has a clearer indication of the UK position.

The original Brexit vision spelled out by the prime minister Theresa May in a speech in January was hard and uncompromising: a clean break.

Now, there are real indications the UK government is willing to accept a less pure form of Brexit. What the UK hopes for in return is some “imagination” and flexibility from the EU.

For example, could Brussels agree that UK money spent on research would count toward settling the UK’s total divorce bill, which estimates put in the €50 to €100 billion range?

High value card

The UK’s offer is surely tempting for the EU all the same. In the game of Brexit poker, science is a high value card for the UK.

Everyone acknowledges that the EU stands to lose science expertise and clout when the UK leaves – not to mention money. The EU, which is preparing its 2021-2027 budget, has not yet figured out whether and how it will make up the shortfall.

A phrase that keeps popping up in Brussels is ‘no cherry picking’. Theresa May has previously acknowledged that the UK would not be able to keep “bits” of its membership of the bloc.

However, the EU would sabotage itself by passing up on the UK offer, says Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German MEP. “A continued British contribution to the EU's research budget helps to alleviate the overall financing problems of the programme itself,” he said. “So, rather than looking at the British proposal as an item of ‘cherry-picking’, it should regard this as a ‘win-win proposition’.

An agreement for the UK to remain part of the EU research system, “Is of course the right thing to do for everyone,” said Thomas Jorgenson, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association.

More compromises

Before it gets any kind of a deal, many believe the UK will inevitably have to make some compromises.

“The government’s paper is utterly devoid of any suggestions for bridging Brexit obstacles,” Mike Galsworthy, director of the pressure group Scientists for EU, points out.

The UK is unyielding on free movement, a cherished principle in Brussels, which says that citizens, no matter where they come from, have the right to live and work in any member state. The government has vowed to clamp down on all immigration.

“We openly wonder at the notion that Brexit Britain should have a more privileged status with the EU than Switzerland or Norway [which] subscribe to free movement,” Galsworthy said.

Then there is the reality that continuing to take part in EU research necessarily involves the continued oversight of the European Court of Justice, which the UK has previously characterised as a red line in the negotiations.

The UK and the EU are, for now, miles apart. After three rounds of plenary talks between the UK and the EU delegations, the UK’s lead negotiator David Davies said, “We’ve seen some concrete progress”, while the EU’s lead negotiator Barnier said, “We did not see any decisive progress.”

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas has said there will be no discussion on science until the more contentious points are settled.

But failure to eke out a science deal, however long it takes, would be “madness”, said Arthur. “There will come a time when we have to do something positive together in these talks,” he said. “Let’s get on to a positive footing [with this paper]. The research part of the negotiations seems much easier, with more obvious benefit, than any other part.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up