Life after Brexit: As UK starts new research partnership with EU there are many wrinkles to iron out

28 Jan 2021 | News

UK contribution of €2B per annum to Horizon Europe smooths the way, but researchers are concerned visas, data transfer and assorted red tape will cause friction, a Science|Business conference hears


The UK is weeks into its new relationship with the EU, and while many of the bad tempered arguments of the last four years have died down, what remains is a litany of potential headaches and red tape to sort through.

UK researchers will be allowed to both lead and participate in future EU science projects, according to the terms of the EU-UK trade deal struck on Christmas Eve. The deal clears the way for them to take part in the EU’s seven-year €95.5 billion research programme, Horizon Europe, due for its soft launch next week.

But after decades collaborating inside the EU’s customs union and single market, it’s likely researchers will confront myriad changes and challenges, a Science|Business conference heard on Tuesday.

“I still think there’s a big legacy around all this,” said Hilary Lappin-Scott, president of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies. “I want this to work. How do we get everything quickly working? How can we clearly show it is all open?”

Participants raised the logistical, regulatory and administrative wrinkles still to sort through.

According to Ronald de Bruin, director of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Association, post-Brexit visa requirements, and changes to passenger and healthcare rights, will make things more cumbersome for researchers traveling across the Channel.

Brexit ended freedom of movement between the UK and EU, although visits of fewer than 90 days remain visa-free - for the most part. So if a researcher wants to attend a conference or a meeting in the UK, no visa will be needed. However, if a researcher is invited to the UK as a paid expert for longer than a month, for example to give guest lectures at a university, a work visa will likely be needed.

“What about those mobility projects that go beyond 90 days – what happens then?” de Bruin asked. (Though it’s hard to see that researcher travel won’t be affected everywhere so long as the pandemic continues to take a toll on the world.) UK officials say a ‘Temporary Worker Government Authorised Exchange visa’, which allows researchers to do work experience, research or a fellowship in the UK for 24 months, would appear the most appropriate option. 

Some officials in Brussels are concerned about healthcare costs for researchers who plan to do a spell in the UK, pointing to the country’s Immigration Health Surcharge. According to the post-Brexit treaty, the EU can suspend the UK from Horizon Europe if it substantially increases fees associated with researcher travel.

For UK scientists who want to spend more than 90 days in the EU, there’s a patchwork of national immigration schemes to navigate – no single EU-wide visa for scientists exists.

“These are not show-stopping issues but they require some attention,” de Bruin said.

Another big issue left to sort out is cross-border data flows, said Christian Ehler, MEP, noting that a short-term agreement between the two sides runs out in June 2021.

The UK still needs an ‘adequacy ruling’ from the European Commission demonstrating its data protection standards match Europe’s GPDR legislation. Without this, UK entities like universities that depend on sending and receiving personal data from the EU would have to resort to alternative arrangements. That could mean a considerable price tag added to a growing stack of GDPR red tape.

New beginning

The UK will join Horizon Europe as an associate country, the same status Switzerland, Norway and 14 other non-EU countries hold for the most recent programme, Horizon 2020, and which guarantees many of the same rights as EU member states.

“I hope it’s the beginning of a new kind of partnership,” said Harriet Wallace, director of international research and innovation in the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“In many ways, associate status works in much the same way as participation does for member states,” Wallace said. “It should not feel massively different. We are looking to really make a success of it.”

Her counterpart in Brussels echoed the sentiment. Signe Ratso, deputy director general and chief negotiator for association in the Commission’s Directorate general for Research and Innovation, said she hopes for “happy and healthy cooperation” between both sides.

Ratso’s message for European researchers is to reach out to their British counterparts. “Your British partners are also your strength,” she said. Similarly, Wallace’s plea to researchers is, “Get on and produce some fantastic proposals together.”

Current associated countries Switzerland and Israel, are highly successful in EU research programmes. Switzerland, for example, usually wins a larger number of European Research Council grants than larger EU countries, such as Italy and Spain.

The UK should be able to emulate the Swiss success, said Ratso. “It’s no secret that UK-based researchers and innovators perform well in EU projects,” she said. UK researchers won almost 12 per cent of the total available funding from the 2014 - 2020 Horizon 2020 programme.

Following the referendum result in 2016, the number of UK applications to Horizon 2020 fell drastically because of the uncertainty around its continued involvement. The UK success rate decreased year-on-year. In 2015, there were 19,127 UK applications. In 2018, this had fallen by 39% to 11,746.

Get back in the game

Researchers are impatient to make up some of the ground lost in the last four years, said Julie Maxton, executive director of the Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy. Applicants want to “get back to doing what they do best,” she said.

But she added her concern about the lingering uncertainty around administrative and logistical issues. The sooner both sides could provide full clarity on these points, the better, she said.

Wallace said the UK government will look into producing webinars and fact sheets to encourage researchers to participate in Horizon Europe, and to explain changes they may come across.

The new rules state that the UK’s financial contribution to Horizon Europe will be calculated annually according to the UK’s GDP relative to the EU27’s. As an associated country, the UK will also need to contribute to the overheads of running the scheme. The fee starts at 0.5% of its basic contribution in 2021, and increases to 4% later. All told, the UK contribution should be around €2 billion per year, officials say.

That money buys the UK access into all elements of Horizon Europe apart from calls that cover sensitive security research and the equity financing pot in the European Innovation Council’s accelerator fund, which offers companies investments of up to €15 million. “We hope [these] will be the exception[s],” Wallace said.

The Commission proposes that non-EU partners pay for the exact grants they receive. This pay-as-you-go system would see successful partners adding to the pot rather than taking from it. If the UK wins back more than 8% above what it pays into Horizon Europe for two consecutive years then it will see an automatic top up added to its fee. If the UK grant haul is 12% below the government’s financial contribution, then the UK can request a performance review process. If it reaches 16% then it can ask for changes to payments, or withdraw from the programme.

The UK will continue to have a role in four other EU programmes, namely the Euratom nuclear research programme, the ITER project to build the world’s first functioning nuclear fusion system, the earth monitoring project Copernicus, and EU satellite surveillance and tracking services. In the absence of defence cooperation, the UK will not have access to Galileo encrypted military data. 

A plethora of joint committees and working groups will be set up between the UK and the EU to govern the new relationship. The UK, like other associate countries, will only have ‘observer status’ in Horizon Europe, with no voting rights.

It is a shame for the UK to lose the “strong voice it had in the past,” said Lappin-Scott. “I can’t see how we’d still have that [same] input”. However, others expect the UK will still make its “soft influence” felt.

Beyond Britain

Ratso said she expects the UK will be eligible for inclusion in the first research calls under Horizon Europe, which may be published as soon as April.

She will lead preliminary talks on association with other non-EU countries, including Norway, Switzerland and Israel. The official talks can only begin once the programme fine-tuning is done and it’s fully adopted into law.

The Commission wants Horizon Europe to open up eligibility to other strong science countries, such as Canada, Japan and perhaps Australia, to join as associate partners.

A formal step for these countries to join will be for their governments to confirm interest in “letters of intent”, said Ratso. The UK-EU treaty sets the main principles for UK participation in the programme but it’s not necessarily a template for other countries, she added.

Parliament cut off?

While the UK-EU treaty settled the big question of British participation in Horizon Europe, it created problems for the European Parliament.

Ehler is wary of terms in the accord that, he argues, undermine the sovereignty of parliament, and curtail its power to scrutinise UK participation in Horizon Europe.

“If we feel that we are getting blackmailed, then we can postpone the plenary adoption of Horizon,” Ehler said.

MEPs from all factions were angry that they were unable to scrutinise the UK-EU treaty fully in advance of its announcement, but the chances of them rejecting it are low.

“We’ll most likely agree [to the deal],” Ehler added. “But if [the Council and the Commission] insist on no role for parliament, we might reconsider the legal basis.”

Ehler says there is a lot of detail still to clear up around the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe. “We’re concerned about the visas,” he said. “And we vaguely hear about reciprocity on the UK side.” 

Reciprocity here means access to UK national research programmes, many of which are “open to the world”, Wallace said. Whether this holds for new funding programmes, like the promised British version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, remain to be seen, as they are “all very much under development”, Wallace added.

Ehler argued that it was the Parliament’s “open hand” to the UK that helped get a good deal for its researchers. The UK government, by comparison, “never had a close ear for [science] stakeholders during talks,” he said.

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