10 Jan 2019   |   News

No ‘cherry-picking’ EU research programmes, Germans warn UK

Berlin science policy leaders want a post-Brexit Britain to stay in the EU’s Horizon programme, but as a full associate member. ‘All or none’, says German MP

Stefan Kaufmann (right) after a meeting with German MEP Christian Ehler (left) and EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas. Photo: European Commission

The UK shouldn’t be allowed to “cherry-pick” which parts of the European Union’s big research programme it can join after Brexit, according to some leading German science policy makers.

“They should be part of all or none” of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, said Stefan Kaufmann, a prominent German Bundestag member. “Cherry picking is not the right way,” he said in an interview with Science|Business.

The view is echoed by Matthias Kleiner, president of Germany’s Leibniz Association. While he and other German science policy leaders want the UK’s strong research institutions to continue collaborating in Horizon, “I think they should be in the whole programme. They should participate, and they should contribute financially to the full programme.”

The comments reflect a growing consensus in Berlin that, while continued scientific collaboration with the UK is important, there should be some conditions. That suggests that, as difficult as the formal Brexit negotiations have been so far, follow-on talks about the UK’s continued scientific partnerships in Europe won’t be simple. Even if the UK parliament this month approves the overall Brexit deal – an increasingly unlikely prospect – there will still be many months of sector-by-sector problems to resolve in science and other fields. 

So far, none of the governments have spelled out detailed positions on the UK’s post-Brexit role in European science, aside from stating repeatedly that they want it to continue.  London has said it wants the closest relationship of any non-EU member. At present, the UK and Germany are the biggest science powerhouses in the EU, and the two biggest recipients of Horizon grants.

Associating to Horizon

But some parts of the EU programme have higher UK participation today than others – especially, the prestigious basic research grants of the European Research Council. And that has led many politicians on the continent to worry that the UK might try to “associate”, or join, only its favourite parts of the planned €94.1 billion Horizon Europe programme, to start from 2021. In fact, a door for that possibility was first opened by the Commission itself, in a 2017 report for EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas that raised the possibility of non-EU countries joining selected parts of the programme.

At present, besides the 28 EU members, there are 16 neighbouring countries – from Israel, Switzerland to Norway – that associate to the programme. They pay into the general EU pot, and their researchers can compete for the EU grants alongside member state scientists and companies. Switzerland had a special status, from September 2014 to December 2016, giving it access to only part of the programme due to an immigration-policy dispute with the EU – but since then it has been reinstated as an associate member of the full programme.

In the case of a post-Brexit Britain, the Commission would be negotiating any Horizon deal, but as a matter of political reality, the member states would call the shots. Among them, Germany would be paramount due to its large national R&D budget. So far, there is no formal German government view, beyond a one sentence reference to future negotiations in a Bundestag resolution last year. But Kaufmann, who since 2014 has been chair of the Bundestag education and science group for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party coalition, said he will be working on a new resolution this Spring.

One common point among German policy leaders is that, somehow, the UK with its powerful universities and research institutes should continue in Horizon. ”I have said to our British colleagues in different meetings that you are leaving, maybe, the European Union but you are not leaving Europe, and you are not leaving the European scientific community,” said Kleiner. As president of the prestigious Leibniz Association, he oversees 95 of Germany’s research institutes and is a frequent government advisor.

A ‘multilateral frame’

Post-Brexit, Kleiner said, “we have to integrate as well as possible our British colleagues and scientists and research institutions into this multilateral frame” of Horizon Europe. By contrast, he said, “I saw some attempts of British institutions to establish a network of bilateral relations, and I thought this would lead to a kind of British Empire of science. This is not what we need.”

Kaufmann also stressed the importance of the UK participating in Horizon Europe, in part because the two countries see eye-to-eye on key science policy issues and have worked together in Brussels for bigger budgets focused on top quality research. “Great Britain was very important for us to fight for our goals in the programmes. And it has very good universities and research institutions. So we are very interested to continue the cooperation.”

But that would be as part of the entire Horizon programme. Science-policy officials in Germany, Italy, France, Romania and Spain have all privately expressed concern that, if the UK joined only the pure-science, ERC part of Horizon, it would immediately dominate the grants, hurting their own researchers’ ERC chances and weakening the rest of the Horizon programme.

But at least one contentious point doesn’t much bother German policy leaders: The balance of payments. The Commission has proposed that rich countries joining Horizon should maintain a rough equilibrium of cash in and out. Observed Kaufmann, “You could say that they aren’t a (EU) member any more so they shouldn’t profit any more – but then, the Swiss get more than they pay. I would say it’s okay if they take out more than they get. It isn’t only about money. It’s also about cooperation, and the profit from these cooperations.”

Kleiner agreed. “This principle of juste retour could not be the leading principle for cooperation in science and research. Maybe you could adjust this from time to time to get a better balance, but it should not be driven by balance. You should be driven by the scientific value of this cooperation.”

‘Jump innovations’

Meanwhile, German politicians continue to share a belief that R&D spending is a national priority – and in fact, Kaufmann expects a new German innovation programme to get started this spring. The plan is to spend €1 billion over a decade on a new civilian agency for “jump innovation” – or big technological leaps that can transform the economy and society. The programme is modelled partly on the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency which, in its various incarnations since the 1950s, has funded development of precursors to the Internet, cybersecurity and much else.

One problem yet to be resolved for the new agency, Kaufmann said, would be familiar to many entrepreneurs, that of getting the right people to manage it. They will be expected to select high impact projects for funding – but which also carry a high risk of failure. Kaufman said it will take more time to negotiate a political agreement in Berlin on how to handle those risks, and then find skilled fund managers to run the agency. Still, he said the schedule is to get it launched in the spring.

The European dimension of this project is yet to be resolved. The French government is interested in a similar project, “but we try to do it in a European framework,” Kaufmann said. The Commission has already proposed its own version of the idea, to create a European Innovation Council – but Kaufmann called that “more like a financial innovation idea” than a direct technological programme. “To be honest, I don’t know if it will be part of the (final Horizon) programme or not,” he said. “We don’t need it, maybe.”

Editor’s note: This article was corrected 11 January to reflect Switzerland’s status in Horizon 2020: its status as a partial participant was only temporary, and it is now a full associate member of the programme.

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