Why Brexit could be a bad thing for Swedish science

18 May 2017 | Viewpoint

While other countries have assessed the overall impact of Brexit, Sweden is alone in analysing the specific effects on R&D. There could be severe consequences for the size and shape of Framework Programmes that will reverberate through Swedish research

This article is a summary of a report commissioned by the Swedish government to look at UK cooperation with Sweden in the EU's Framework Programmes and bilateral cooperation between the two countries, in order to assess the possible consequences - both negative and positive – of the UK leaving the EU.

First, the withdrawal of the UK means Sweden will lose the support of one of the most like-minded countries in terms of research and innovation in the EU. This risks weakening Sweden's position in the negotiations for Framework Programme 9 and its successors.

Without the UK’s contribution, there is likely to be a lower budget for FP9 than the current €70 billion Horizon 2020. In addition, the possibility that without the UK at the negotiating table, FP9 does not match Sweden’s R&D structure, interests and objectives as well as before, may mean Swedish researchers and companies have less interest in participating.

The risk may be reduced if the UK is an associate to the Framework Programme and therefore has an observer status in programme committees and European Research Area groups.

Whether the UK will want - or will be able to get - an association agreement with the EU is an open question. Here, there is an opportunity for Sweden to act to push against one or the other scenario.

The UK is one of the leading advocates and performers of excellent science. Given this, Brexit means there is a risk that the EU's focus on excellence may decrease. While this could pose a threat for Swedish research, at the same time there is an opportunity for the country to become a beacon as of one of the member states representing excellence in research and innovation.

This could benefit Sweden, by for example, attracting more European Research Council/Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant holders to conduct their research in Sweden.

After Germany, the UK is Sweden's second-largest research collaboration partner in Horizon 2020, and in the fields of medicine, health and aeronautics, is the leading partner.

The question of whether the UK has associate status remains open for now, and in any case is unlikely to be decided before 2021, when FP9 gets underway.

That means there is a clear risk for the last years of Horizon 2020 of reduced mobility between our two countries, which may affect Swedish researchers' ability to conduct research in the UK.

Swedish researchers have extensive collaborations with researchers in the UK. As one example of the value of this interchange, scientific papers co-written by Swedish and UK researchers generally have a major citation impact.

At this stage, it is difficult to assess the consequences of Brexit, but reduced mobility will obviously hinder this type of “bilateral cooperation”.

In addition, the UK coordinates the most projects in Horizon 2020, a workload that will need to be taken on by other countries. Sweden will need to consider whether it should try and shoulder some of this.

The withdrawal of the UK could potentially mean more researchers choose to come to Sweden.

In the coming years, Sweden should build partnerships/networks to ensure continued cooperation with the UK in Horizon 2020 and other bilateral cooperation, especially in medicine, health and aeronautics, where Sweden has a strong research base and there is currently a high level of collaboration with the UK.

What should happen now

Below are a number of potential proposals for how to act in order to ‘protect’ Sweden’s R&D interests in the lead up to Brexit and beyond. Before deciding on any actions there is a need for deeper analyses. Universities/institutes must be involved in developing the overall strategy.

• Develop a strategy for negotiating Framework Programmes and other legislation related to research and innovation post-Brexit. This should take into account the impact when the UK - as a like-minded member state - disappears, potentially leaving Sweden with less influence, and with government offices and agencies needing to do more work preparing for meetings.

• Sweden should take advantage of the current uncertainty and use it as an opportunity to build contacts/networks with the UK to ensure continued cooperation in Horizon 2020 and especially in medicine, health and aeronautics. To do this, some financial stimulation could be considered. Information should be disseminated about the guarantees that have been given by the UK government to continue funding of projects, to underline that there are no reasons for not continuing cooperation with the UK in Horizon 2020 before Brexit.

Unless the UK has associated status in the last two years of Horizon 2020 (which seems unlikely), Sweden must carefully follow developments regarding what may happen with Horizon 2020 grant agreements.\

  • In general, further analysis of the cooperation between Sweden and the UK in the Framework Programmes is necessary in order to draw more definitive conclusions.
  • The fact that the UK coordinates proportionately more Framework Programme projects than other countries may motivate Sweden to consider the possibility of encouraging/stimulating Swedish researchers to act as coordinators more often, a move that should strengthen Sweden's position as a leading research nation in Europe.
  • There could be assistance for Swedish researchers and especially potential project coordinators, to find partners other than in the UK.
  • The possibility of attracting more European Research Council/ Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions researchers to Sweden should be considered, highlighting the available opportunities to researchers who today select UK as a destination.
  • Identify any organisations (primarily universities) in the UK that have frequent interactions with Sweden and which depend heavily on external funding from the Framework Programme, as they are likely to be very interested in maintaining collaborations.

Dan Andrée is Special Advisor to Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research and to the Innovation Agency Vinnova. This article is a summary of a report commissioned by the Swedish Government to look at the consequences for Sweden’s research system of the UK leaving the EU and is written by Dan Andrée and Jonas Gurell (Swedish Research Council).

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