A brief reminder of how Brexit will affect EU and UK science

14 Nov 2018 | News

The legal text of a Brexit deal has been agreed between the EU and the UK, and accepted by Theresa May's Cabinet. Here is a summary of the bigger picture in EU-UK relations for research and innovation 

Speaking at the Jodrell Bank Observatory earlier this year, Theresea May outlined the role of science in UK's industrial strategy. Photo: Number 10, Flickr

Wednesday saw UK Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet supporting a draft deal for exiting the EU. A long political fight lies ahead.

Science|Business offers a recap on what we know already about how Brexit will impact UK and EU science.

What happens after Brexit day on Friday 29 March 2019?

Whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations, UK researchers can still take part in most of the current research programme, Horizon 2020, as collaborators. 

An analysis prepared by the government states that, under current rules, the UK post-Brexit would be allowed to take part in “calls open to third country participation.” But they will no longer able to apply for three major EU funding programmes: the European Research Council, some parts of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship programme and the SME Instrument, because EU rules say scientists applying for these competitions must be based at host institutions that are legal entities in the EU or associated countries.

The draft withdrawal agreement published on November 14 states that, “During the transition period, any reference to Member States… shall be understood as including the United Kingdom.” This implies that the UK will retain all the rights it currently has - so long as the deal is approved by the UK parliament and the EU 27 member states. 

The UK government has promised that if it cannot strike a deal with Brussels, it will underwrite Horizon 2020 funding for all existing and future successful UK bids (those submitted from now until the end of 2020). The guarantee would cover the lifetime of researchers’ projects, even if they last beyond 2020. The offer improves upon the one made by the government in 2016, when it only proposed to pay for successful submissions made before March 29, 2019.

The government also says that it would continue to provide funding for its share of costs in the EU-funded Joint European Torus until the end of 2020, if the EU extends its contract with the nuclear facility until then.

What remains unclear is the status of projects where the UK’s change in status from member state to “third country” opens up concerns about ongoing compliance with Horizon 2020 rules. A Horizon 2020 consortium must include at least three participants from three different EU member states or associated countries such as Switzerland. That means the UK’s change in status could affect the legal status of some EU-funded consortia.

What kind of science relationship can the EU and UK have in the future?

The UK government is committed to striking a new deal with the EU for the next research programme, Horizon Europe, starting in 2021. Its most recent Brexit strategy white paper says the UK also wants to be a part of the Euratom research programme, the Joint European Torus, and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor fusion project.

However, it wants to have an “appropriate level of influence on the shape of the programme” in line with its financial contribution.

What does the EU want?

The EU has not given the UK any firm guarantees about the shape of the science relationship after the 21-month Brexit transition period. However, the European Commission’s proposal for Horizon Europe contains the outline of a workable future relationship, with the UK as an associate member.

The EU would like to open up Horizon Europe to greater participation from non-EU countries. International participation in Horizon 2020 fell in comparison with the previous funding scheme, in part because the EU changed the funding rules for countries including Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico.

What if there is no deal?  

The EU has suggested that, in a no deal scenario, UK participants would continue to be eligible to take part in EU calls open to third country participation. A no deal, hard Brexit would however mean that UK-based companies could no longer bid for contracts with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in southern France.

Are there other ways UK entities could access EU funding?

UK entities are exploring new forms of legal alliances as another way around funding uncertainties. The ERC, for example, says its recipients must spend at least 50 per cent of their time at a host institute in the EU or associated country. UK institutions with outposts on the continent, then, could conceivably continue to access ERC grants, even in the case of a hard Brexit.

Alliances are beginning to sprout up. Last month, for example, Imperial College London signed a partnership with the Technical University of Munich to create academic posts jointly recruited and shared by the UK and German universities. Earlier this year Imperial struck a similar deal with France's National Centre for Scientific Research to co-fund a maths laboratory in London, which will allow its UK mathematicians to have the same access to EU funding as French staff.

What preparations are being made for a no-deal?

Recipients of Horizon 2020 funding in the UK are being asked to provide data to the public funding body, UK Research and Innovation, in order to prepare the underwrite guarantee.

What’s the money at stake?

The numbers brook little argument: between 2007 and 2013, the UK put €5.4 billion into the EU research pot and took out around €8.8 billion. European grants provide about 12 per cent of UK universities’ research income; although for some institutions, they make up a much bigger share.

Universities, as well as companies in research-driven industries like tech, aerospace and pharmaceuticals, are worried about losing access to EU research funding, and have established Brexit mitigation groups, amid signs that the UK might already be missing out on EU research funds.

What happens next?

If UK ministers back the agreement being offered by Brussels today, focus will switch to the vote in parliament. If the Prime Minister cannot sell the deal to MPs, her government would have 14 days to vary the terms agreed with Brussels, and then take a new deal back for a second vote.

But with the clock ticking, and any agreement needing approval of 27 member state governments and the European Parliament, time could simply run out. If May resigns, the ruling Conservative party would have the seemingly impossible task of finding a new leader who can get the support of Remain and Brexit MPs.

That could trigger a general election, there could be a request to Brussels to postpone Brexit day, and pressure for a second referendum would intensify. Hold tight.

*Editor's note: this article was updated on November 15 with information from the EU's draft withdrawal document

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