13 Oct 2016   |   Viewpoint

How will the next EU research programme shape up without the UK and Switzerland?

The prospect of losing two science heavyweights looms over preparations for Framework Programme 9. Science|Business brought together researchers, funders and policymakers to debate and discuss the implications

The planning for the next EU research programme now underway is complicated by uncertainty over UK and Swiss participation, with the two countries approaching crunch-time in their relationships with the bloc.

The shock UK referendum result in June this year, and that of February 2014 in Switzerland, has left them facing a similar dilemma: both want control over the number of EU citizens on their territory, while keeping access to the single market and other bilateral deals, such as participating in the next research programme, Framework Programme 9 (FP9), starting in 2021. The EU, however, maintains freedom of movement and access are legally conjoined.

Researchers weighed up the possible consequences of excluding two science heavyweights at a Science|Business conference on plans for FP9 in Brussels yesterday.

“If we exclude Britain and Switzerland, it will do big damage to the European research programmes,” said Wilhelm Krull, secretary general of Volkswagen Stiftung, a German foundation for the promotion of research and education.

Similarly, Ludwig Neyses, vice president for research with the University of Luxembourg, made a passionate call for UK inclusion in FP9, saying, “It is extremely important to have the UK in European science. We should tell the UK we really need you with all we have,” he said.

Sympathy for the UK’s position was far from universal, however. A straw poll of the 200-odd audience members suggested the vast majority were against any special deal for the country.

Fabrizio Gagliardi, chair of EU-Association for Computing Machinery Europe, pointed out that Switzerland, a non-EU member has made concessions in return for access to EU research. “I’m not asked to show my passport in Switzerland but I am in the UK,” he said, implying the UK should now expect to make similar compromises.

Referendum damage

“The uncertainty in Britain is dreadful,” said Jeremy Farrar, CEO of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second largest charitable research funding body. “If you’re a researcher thinking about where to spend the next part of your career, I can understand why you’d choose Amsterdam say, and not make the riskier move to the UK.”

Switzerland has already felt the repercussions of the February 2014 vote to impose quotas on immigration, potentially ripping up a bilateral deal with the EU on free movement of people.

The EU swiftly retaliated, demoting Switzerland in Horizon 2020. The country clawed back the right to participate in one part of the programme, excellent science, but has to pay the grants of any Swiss researchers involved in Horizon 2020’s second and third pillars, industrial leadership and societal challenges.

“I would like Switzerland to be a full part of all three Horizon 2020 pillars and the next programme,” said Barbara Haering, President of advanced studies in public administration at the University of Lausanne. There has been damage to Swiss research in the past two years. “It’s losing its attractiveness for high-end researchers,” Haering said.

Critical juncture

Despite recent tough talk from the UK government, “I can confirm there is no vision at this time”, said Kay Swinburne MEP, Conservative member for Wales, who voted to remain in the EU. “The analysis is still being done,” she said. “There is no hard, soft or scrambled Brexit.”

Swinburne’s view is that the UK will keep its place in EU research programmes. “I personally believe UK will continue to invest in EU research budgets. I think over time [the government] will find a way to [participate],” she said.

But, perhaps as a slight hedge against a full divorce, Swinburne also pitched Brexit as a catalyst for a rethink, suggesting for example that if the European Medicines Agency was re-cast as an intergovernmental body like CERN it could remain in London. “It’s politics – everything is up for grabs,” she said.

Farrar said there is a great responsibility on politicians to get things right in the UK. “We are in a really critical juncture because the choices we make will have implications for 50 years,” he said.  

There is a similar feeling in Switzerland, where a campaign to overturn the 2014 referendum is underway, with a return to the ballot box possible. “We are trying to resolve the question [and] find a soft interpretation of the February vote,” said Haering. “It would not be the first popular referendum where the interpretation was soft.”

Engaging with antipathy

The referendum results in the UK and Switzerland showed a bubbling discontent with Brussels has been fatally ignored for years, the audience heard.  “We didn’t take votes in national countries seriously. You remember referenda in France, the Netherlands and Ireland that were ignored,” said Krull.

In the UK, popular concern about immigration was not treated seriously by politicians or researchers until it was too late, said Farrar. “There are huge benefits to freedom of movement within the EU. But we have to learn something from Brexit and talk beyond our own group,” he said.  

“As researchers, we’ve been too inward-looking.” Farrar said. There is need for sociological research to get an understanding of what lies behind one of the key sentiments of the referendum, as voiced by Brexiteer-in-chief Michael Gove, then secretary of state for justice that, “people have had enough of experts.”

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