UK researchers fear Brexit will cut them out of bids for EU collaborative funding

05 Jul 2016 | News
There is no dossier, but anecdotal evidence that British researchers are being sidelined in putting together proposals for Horizon 2020 grants is growing

Scientists in Britain are worried about being sidelined from EU research projects before formal Brexit negotiations have even begun.

The European Commission has stressed that the UK remains a member of the EU and enjoys all the same rights and privileges it did before with regard to participation in European science programmes.

But there is already some evidence that the vote to leave the EU in the June 23 referendum is hindering research.

As one case in point, the result has torpedoed several proposals made by Leeds University, according to Ben Williams, head of European funding. “It’s hard to quantify exactly, but four examples are known here already,” he said.

Similarly, Ali Mobasheri, professor of musculoskeletal physiology at Surrey University, says Dutch and Belgian partners have told him they consider it risky to include UK partners in an upcoming EU bid.

“They don’t really want us to be involved,” said Mobasheri. “They told me that Brexit has caused them concerns and confusion, and are worried it could jeopardise the proposal’s chances.”

Mobasheri, who relies on EU funding for most of his research, is himself concerned about how British proposals will be viewed by evaluators in Brussels. “Have all the evaluators had training against unconscious bias? Because we have all this noise around us and sometimes it can be very difficult to block it out,” he said.

Business as usual

“It is business as usual for Horizon 2020,” said UK Science Minister Jo Johnson. “I would be concerned about any discrimination against UK participants and am in close touch with Commissioner Moedas on these issues,” Johnson told an audience including university vice chancellors, research funders and scientists, in a speech in London last Thursday (30 June).  

EU officials have also issued several statements since the referendum encouraging researchers to carry on seeking British partners.

But the Brexit vote has left behind “a perception” that could be harmful to UK researchers’ chances, says Anne Glover, former EU chief science adviser and vice principal for external affairs and dean for Europe at Aberdeen University.

“It’s hard to pin down specific examples,” said Glover. “[But] when I was in the University of East Anglia a couple of days ago they told me they had been asked by collaborators to step aside as the leader [in a project].”

Johnson said he is aware of the reports of discrimination but, “Has not been given a dossier of evidence that says it is happening in concrete terms.” Researchers should communicate any instances of discrimination, he said. “If I see any specific evidence that it is happening, I will bring it to the attention of the team [in his government department] and they will make the relevant authorities and the Commissioner aware of it.”

Julia Goodfellow, vice chancellor of Kent University and president of Universities UK, said she is gathering evidence, “to find out if there is a significant problem.” Scientists for EU, a campaign group led by Mike Galsworthy, has its own investigation underway aswell. 

Pecking order

British researchers are pessimistic about where the vote and the uncertainty it has generated will leave them in the pecking order for applications to Horizon 2020.

It is “almost impossible” to see how the UK can coordinate future projects in Horizon 2020, said Kevin O’Rourke, professor of economic history at Oxford University. “We don’t know what the UK’s status will be in two years’ time, so why take a risk?”

Echoing this sentiment, Philip Cowley, professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London said, “Why invest in building up relationships with people that are leaving?”

Similarly, Paul Quinn, a UK national at the Centre for Law, Science, Technology and Society at Brussels Free University, said, “There seems no point in a consortium applying for project money now with a UK partner. If you look at the Horizon 2020 process, the chance of success is already low (maybe 10-12 per cent) and the application process can take up to a year.”

“Given the uncertainty you would have to be mad wasting time trying to make proposals with a UK partner now. Nobody knows how the UK will be treated officially, let alone unofficially,” Quinn said.

Uncertainty rules

Antonino Rotolo, vice-rector for research at the University of Bologna, told Science|Business that the vote is bad news for anyone looking to build research consortia with UK partners. He could not say for sure yet whether attitudes towards British researchers have changed in Italy but "researchers are starting to ask whether it could be a risk to include a UK partner in an EU proposal.”

His colleagues are currently preparing a proposal for an upcoming funding round and are weighing up the merits of a UK partner leading it. “This issue was actually raised by the UK partner, which offered not to coordinate,” Rotolo said.

Ramon Wyss, vice president of international affairs at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, said he cannot see UK partners being chosen for future EU projects. “For the next European Institute of Innovation & Technology cluster call, urban mobility in 2018, one can be rather sure that the consortia that are going to be set up will be rather careful over selecting their UK counterpart, if any,” he said.

“Similarly, any kind of flagship or more strategic initiative will certainly not push to have a UK partner,” said Wyss, implying the recently-announced EU quantum flagship may not include anyone from the UK.

Even though the UK government could choose to reimburse the lost funds, Wyss said, “The uncertainty will dampen EU-UK collaborations.”

Stéphane Boissel, CEO of biotech company TxCell in France, said he would now be “very hesitant” to go into a Horizon 2020 application with a UK partner.

There are those who say they do not detect anything has changed since the vote. “In general, I do not have the impression that our researchers have the intent to reduce their relationship with UK peers,” said Paul van Dun, general manager of KU Leuven’s research and development department. “We have quite some collaborations with what you could call the ‘Ivy league from the UK’, and I see no signs of our researchers wanting to end these collaborations.”

Anna Sachinopoulou, coordinator of EU projects at the University of Oulu, Finland, said her institute would also continue to seek British partners. “Of course we should include the UK in our proposals. An exit from the EU [will] take a really long time and the country has already provided the budget money for this era. They have the [same] right to participate as all of us,” she said.

The timetable for the UK’s exit from the EU remains unclear. Once Article 50 of the EU Lisbon treaty is activated, which some leading politicians say will happen before the end of 2017, it will sound a starting pistol on a process of negotiation that must conclude within two years.

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