Brexit: 4 sticking points for science and technology

15 Nov 2018 | News

As UK Parliament debates Brexit plan, researchers around Europe ponder a few key questions that would affect their work 

After nearly two years of frenzied negotiations, the EU and the UK on Wednesday night reached an agreement on Britain's exit from the bloc. But it's far from a done deal. Scenarios for what happens next range from a smooth divorce to rejection of the deal, potentially leading to the collapse of the government and the UK leaving the bloc with no agreement, or another referendum.

"It will be a long, hard road to reach a long-term agreement," said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the UK’s Royal Society.

There are political landmines, but also many contentious science-related details of the divorce and future trade deal left to be coloured in.

Science|Business, with its focus on research and innovation issues, summarises four remaining sticking points below.

Question 1: The future science relationship

Early reaction from science and industry to the deal has been generally positive – or, at least, not as negative as many professional politicians in London. Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said a future deal on science with the EU was looking “tentatively promising”. Juergen Maier, the UK CEO of German engineering giant Siemens, said “it looks to me this is the only deal in town. I think it is better to get behind it, maybe fine tune it a little bit and make it work.”

Yet few are fully satisfied.

The withdrawal agreement goes only so far as to say what will happen up until 2020. In this period, the UK will stay inside the bloc's single market and remain subject to EU laws and regulations.

There was little mention of science and innovation in the EU’s draft statement outlining a future trade deal beyond 2020, and no certainties offered on the country’s participation in the next EU research programme, Horizon Europe, which starts in 2021.

The scant details in the EU’s 585-page draft document came as a surprise to one Conservative MP, with Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Select Committee in the House of Commons, tweeting that "shockingly", the Brexit agreement has "absolutely nothing" about healthcare, public health or research.

One of the biggest questions is how much of the Horizon Europe research programme will be accessible to the UK after 2020. A suggestion from some members of the European Parliament is that Brussels should prioritise the EU-27, and be more selective about which parts of the future programme foreign countries can access. The UK, in particular, is concerned about proposals that Horizon Europe should, as one draft amendment puts it, “give priority to excellent projects that plan to first commercialise their research and innovation results across the Union”.

“That’s the biggest risk I see,” said Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator with the European Universities Association. “Today is not about who resigns in London, it’s about keeping the goal fixed on an open Horizon Europe. Deal or no-deal, the EU would benefit more by not making the next research programme overly restrictive [for non-EU countries]”.

“We must not endanger the UK’s appetite for wanting to join Horizon Europe,” agreed Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities.

Question 2: Nuclear research

In a potentially controversial clause, the withdrawal draft confirms the UK will leave Euratom, which oversees civilian nuclear research and sets the rules on where nuclear material is kept and how it is moved, at the end of the transition period.

The text, however, only focuses on specific areas related to nuclear materials safeguards, the ownership of equipment used by Euratom inspectors and liabilities on the decommissioning of facilities.

There are no specifics on a future arrangement for shared fusion or fission research. But until 2020 at least, "we would stay in ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the world’s largest fusion experiment) and JET (the Joint European Torus, near Oxford) can continue to run," said Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. 

The UK government has said it wants a deal – similar to one held by Switzerland – on scientific and technical cooperation with Euratom. It also wants to stay in ITER, which it currently accesses through Euratom.

Whether the EU will agree to any of this remains unclear, but British civil servants say early discussions with Brussels have been positive. “Talking to people from the UK fusion programme, they seem to be relaxed and optimistic,” said Juan Matthews, visiting professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute in the University of Manchester. “We can only hope the [entry] price charged by Euratom will be manageable.”

Question 3: Security, space

After the post-Brexit transition period ends, the UK may find itself with only basic access to some of the EU’s top industrial innovation programmes. Areas with security considerations, such as space, can be restricted to member states only. The UK’s continued full access to the Galileo satellite system, for example, is in some doubt. Officials maintain, however, that proposals in this area are still on the drawing board. “We haven’t got into these details yet; all this still needs to be negotiated,” a senior EU official said Thursday.

Question 4: Researcher mobility

Freedom of movement will end after the transition period. If this extra 21 months proves insufficient to agree on a future deal, the transition period can be extended by joint agreement between Brussels and London before July 1, 2020.

The draft document confirms protections for the millions of EU citizens living in the UK and the Britons living elsewhere in the bloc to continue to reside, work or study as they currently do. "No exit visa, entry visa or equivalent formality shall be required of holders of a valid document issued" for EU and UK nationals when crossing national boarders within the bloc, it says.  

Future immigration rules are not included in the negotiation process, however. This means the UK will have flexibility to set its own. The Wellcome Trust, one of the UK’s most prestigious scientific institutes, says it hopes for “a reciprocal agreement that supports full researcher mobility between the UK and EU."

The European Commission has previously said it will not sanction a special side deal for scientists. “Only staying in the EU or EEA (European Economic Area) would guarantee funding participation or free movement in the long term," said Steven Peers, professor of EU law at the University of Essex.

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