28 Jun 2016   |   News

UK Horizon 2020 contracts safe, insist Moedas and Cameron

In the wake of the UK vote to leave the EU, leaders offer reassurances to researchers anxious about the effects on science

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas attempted to quell the uncertainty unleashed by the UK vote to leave the EU, insisting yesterday that researchers remain eligible to apply for funding from the Horizon 2020 research programme.

“Until the end of the negotiations, UK remains a member of the EU and therefore with all the rights and obligations, including in relation to research programmes like Horizon 2020,” Moedas said.

"From a legal point of view, the outcome of the referendum has not changed anything. The EU law continues to apply in full to the UK, and in the UK, until the moment it is no longer a member state,” the Commissioner said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced his resignation on Friday morning, confirmed this yesterday during questions in the House of Commons. “All [Horizon 2020] contracts will be honoured. Obviously the key decision will be post-leaving, about how we put in arrangements to safeguard the excellent research facilities and universities we have,” he said.

The statements, the first to be aimed at researchers, come four days after the UK vote to leave the EU, throwing the economy and politics into turmoil.

Despite the reassuring tone, there is still some fear that Brexit will have a chilling effect on the UK’s inclusion in EU research consortia. Nick Wright, the Pro Vice Chancellor for research and innovation at Newcastle University, said he is, “Already getting reports of UK researchers not welcome any more in EU consortiums.”

Scientists in Britain have reacted with shock and sadness to the Brexit vote. Paul Nurse, former President of the Royal Society and now head of the Francis Crick Institute, said the vote creates “isolationism” for British science, while Anne Glover, vice-principal at Aberdeen University and former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, said she is “personally heartbroken” and the immediate future for universities and research institutes “looks very bleak”.

Over the weekend, Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, told Science|Business his phone “has been ringing non- stop” since Friday. “Presidents of UK universities, UK coordinators of Horizon 2020 projects and of course my own staff; all are concerned, angry and upset, wondering what this all means for our future cooperation,” he said. 

Stemming brain drain

Moedas and Cameron were not the only ones moving yesterday to shore up lost confidence among the research community. UK science minister Jo Johnson said EU nationals are still welcome in the UK and may continue to seek financial help from the government. “Current students and this autumn's applicants will continue to receive student finance for duration of their course,” he said.

On Sunday, Johnson’s brother Boris, prominent Leave campaigner and a leading candidate to be the country’s next prime minister, also attempted to reassure researchers in a pitch for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. “There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment,” he said.

Reassurances for British staff 

Meanwhile, a top British civil servant has received reassurances that the UK’s vote to leave the EU would not affect her immediate future. Lowri Evans, who heads the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs department, better known as DG Grow, was told yesterday her position in the Commission is secure. 

Although the UK retains the rights and duties of membership until it formally leaves the EU, a process which could take over two years, a Brexit vote has led to concern for the job security of British staff working in Brussels.

Last week Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sent an email to civil servants, including the 1,000 British staff, which read, "You work for Europe. You left your national 'hats' at the door when you joined this institution and that door is not closing on you now."

Yet Evan’s position in the executive’s hierarchy was the subject of some conversations over the weekend following the sudden departure of Jonathan Hill, the British Commissioner in charge of the highly coveted financial services portfolio. 

Already one British member of the European Parliament (MEP) has stepped down from a key role. 

Conservative MEP Ian Duncan, who was leading work on reforms to the EU’s emissions trading scheme, quit on Friday. “It is too important for it to be left in limbo,” Duncan said.

It remains to be seen if colleagues will follow Duncan’s lead. Other British MEPs with prominent roles include Vicky Ford, a UK Conservative who chairs the parliament’s internal markets committee, and Claude Moraes, the Labour chair of the civil liberties committee. 

The 73 British MEPs — who make up the third largest delegation in the assembly — will almost certainly be out of a job, along with their British assistants, after divorce talks finish.

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