Scramble for post-Brexit deal leaves science on a cliff hanger

24 Nov 2020 | News

As the traumatic divorce hurtles towards its conclusion, analysts assess the state of play for research


As Brexit trade negotiations enter the last stretch, the stakes for science remain uncomfortably high.

With the EU and the UK racing to conclude a deal on their future trading relationship before the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31, talks about the future science relationship “hang in the balance”, according to a UK official, who said it will come down to an assessment on value for money and whether the EU can offer safeguards to ensure the UK will not end up putting in more than it gets out of the upcoming seven-year EU Horizon Europe research programme.

UK science figures and officials have been warning for a while now that the price tag for joining Horizon Europe may be growing too high. The EU has proposed making the UK pay a proportion of the 2021-2027 research budget based on its gross domestic product as a share of total EU GDP, which currently stands at 18 per cent.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that an overarching economic trade agreement will be secured at the 11th hour, albeit a thin one, which stores up a number of problems for the post-transition phase,” said James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield University. “On the specific prospects for research, I'm more pessimistic,” he said. “By all accounts, the two sides are still some way apart on costs.”

The UK is pushing for a “safety net”, in the form of a “downward correction mechanism” to compensate the UK government if its researchers take out a lower than expected share of Horizon Europe funding.

“Without such budgetary safeguards in place, I think it will be almost impossible to secure the necessary domestic political support in the UK for our association to Horizon Europe,” Wilsdon said.

The problem for the UK government is predicting how much its researchers stand to gain from joining Horizon Europe. Performance in the current research programme, Horizon 2020, has suffered greatly since the 2016 referendum, when the UK voted to leave the EU. An analysis by the Royal Society last year showed that the UK's annual share of EU research funding has fallen by nearly a third since 2015.

UK negotiators are arguing for a money arrangement for Horizon Europe along the lines of that presented back in 2018. The system, as described by the European Commission then, would be “pay as you go” for non-EU countries, with a corrective mechanism to hand back any money not recouped by a country’s researchers. Since then, however, EU negotiators charged with securing a free trade agreement with the UK have insisted that future payments to Horizon Europe would be based on the size of UK GDP.

“Despite the strong support up to now for association across the UK research community, I think more people will start to baulk at the potential cost, which at some point needs to be tensioned against potential uses of that money in support of alternative bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for research collaboration, or within our own R&D system,” Wilsdon said.

Brussels and London are also reportedly miles apart on three other areas: the so-called level playing field rules limiting government subsidies for industry, how to govern the deal if it is ever agreed, and access to fisheries. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, EU officials like to say.

Seen next to these sticky issues, a deal on research will be more straightforward, said Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator with the European University Association.

“I have not seen anything that would have changed my mind from what I said four years ago: if they can find a deal on the big issues, they will certainly find a deal on research and other programmes,” Jørgensen said. “I think that we will end with full association to Horizon Europe with some kind of compromise on how much the UK has to pay.”

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last week warned there were "some metres to the finish line", while the rumours and whispers talked up the prospect of an imminent deal.

Face-to-face negotiations were suspended last week when an official in Michel Barnier’s team tested positive for Covid-19.

“Time is short,” the EU’s chief negotiator tweeted on Monday, as talks resumed online. “Fundamental divergences still remain.”

Strong case

The UK becomes a serious competitor on the EU doorstep from January, but science supporters on both sides are calling for a strong research relationship to continue.

“The case for collaboration in science is overwhelming: and integrating the UK in Horizon Europe would send an incredibly strong message to other research powerhouses – not just Switzerland, but also further afield. If Horizon Europe included the UK, third-country association would be that much more powerful to Canada or Australia,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

This view has support in Brussels. If the UK really wanted to get into hard bargaining on research, the EU would have reason to lower its asking price on Horizon Europe entry, said an EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The UK in Horizon would make the programme a more enticing prospect for other big, non-EU countries, the representative from a large EU country confirmed. UK money would also be welcome, after a recently agreed budget allocation for Horizon Europe “that felt like a bit of a damp squib,” the diplomat added. In the latest and possibly decisive round of intensive budget talks this month, EU lawmakers agreed to give €85 billion to the seven-year programme — well shy of the €120 billion campaigners and MEPs pushed for. The European Parliament is expected to formally approve the budget deal before the end of the year.

Over on the UK side, there are also those who foresee a compromise. The recent departure of prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, “allows the government to be more flexible”, according to one analyst. With Cummings out of the picture, it leaves room for other science voices to push the argument for Horizon association. “There was a feeling that science policy was being led principally by Cummings’ whims, and that he felt a new DARPA-like agency would be an adequate replacement for EU funding,” the analyst said. A British version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency has been floated for creation next year.

The concern is that time will simply run out to strike a deal. The transition period ends at midnight on December 31, and there is a lot of stuff to wade through before then, including a complex ratification period involving committees and the European Parliament. It could also require eventual ratification in EU national parliaments, depending on the contents of the deal.

The pessimistic view

Business and universities argue any deal is better than none, even if new post-Brexit costs and red tape are inevitable.

Few are fully reassured about where talks are headed. “Clearly it is not looking good,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities.

Deketelaere says that absent an agreement with the EU, the UK has a long route towards formalising a new research relationship with Brussels. “The UK will first have to negotiate an umbrella agreement with the EU regarding those programmes it would like to participate in.” Switzerland is presently in the same situation and expects to need some two years to negotiate this and get it through its parliament.

“Only after approval of this umbrella agreement [can] the specific association agreements be negotiated and approved. We will be halfway through Horizon Europe by that time,” he said.

Discussions around a new “Discovery Fund”, which would offer grants over long periods to early-, mid- and late-career researchers, is evidence that the UK is lining up alternative research funding options, Deketelaere says. On Wednesday Johnson’s government will present a clearer window into its research plans, when it outlines the day-to-day spending by government departments in 2021/2022 in the annual spending review.

“It’s pessimistic indeed and universities in the UK and the EU would regret this very much,” Deketelaere said, on the prospect of no-deal.

However, if the UK government was ever seriously thinking of walking away from the negotiating table, then Joe Biden’s win in the US election will have caused UK officials “to re-examine the wisdom of this,” said the EU diplomat.

In his call with Johnson earlier this month, Biden twice reminded the prime minister that Brexit must not harm the Northern Ireland peace process. “Biden could very easily hold them over a barrel,” the diplomat said.

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