Two years after Brexit vote, a cloud still hangs over research

12 Jul 2018 | News

The UK decision to leave the EU cuts at science’s core ethos of openness. As exit negotiations lurch along, researchers from across Europe are yet to spot a bright side to losing such an important science partner

In a week that saw revolt in the UK from a hard-line pro-Brexit faction, the question of how — or whether — the country will work with the EU-27 on science after leaving the bloc next year continues to paralyse researchers.

The enormity of the decision to leave the EU, voted by a majority in the 2016 referendum, still cuts deep for scientists, for whom freedom of movement and cross-border partnerships are indispensable.

“There’s no sense in which I can be optimistic. There is no deal we could possibly negotiate that is as good as what we currently have,” Anne Glover, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told the biennial EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse on Wednesday.

In the two years since the Brexit vote – a time characterised by confusion and anger – the UK government has struggled to forge a plan for exiting the EU that can satisfy both parliament and the public. This week saw the resignations of two senior government ministers, Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who disagreed with Prime Minister’s latest stab at setting out a negotiating position around which the factions in her cabinet could unite.

Brexit is a “catastrophe people are quite happily moving towards,” Glover said. “If you like soap operas, it’s a good time to be tuning in.” 

Certainly, the UK could pay a high price if it completely leaves the orbit of Brussels. In the absence of a deal to keep the UK in the EU’s main research programme, Horizon Europe, the country would require “a complete re-design” of its research system, argues Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general of the European Commission’s research directorate, and now the EU executive’s envoy working on securing open access to scientific journals.

“Think about it – no access to Marie Skłodowska-Curie [research fellowship] actions; would the UK set up its own scheme? Think about collaborative programmes: they are easy to set up if they are just between two countries, but much harder to establish if there are more than two,” he said.

No country has flourished in EU research quite like the UK. EU funds have enabled leading scientists with European Research Council grants to move there to set up their own research groups and helped establish a host of research infrastructures, including the microbiology research programme Instruct, and the European Social Survey (ESS).

The ESS, located at City University London, carries out interviews in 30 countries every two years to measure attitudes and beliefs of European citizens. Instruct, located at Oxford University, is a study into the building blocks of proteins, viruses and cells.

The Joint European Torus in Culham is home to the world's largest fusion reactor and employs some 1,000 people. “Who will pick up the bill?” Smits wanted to know.

After decades of European integration, “We’ve become so entwined that it will be almost impossible to untangle. I think it’s very naïve when I see politicians say they can ‘go global’ and replace European partnerships,” Smits said.

Those who want to keep close ties to the bloc point to the significant return on research investment. The numbers brook little argument: between 2007 and 2013, the UK put €5.4 billion into the EU research pot and was awarded around €8.8 billion. European grants provide about 12 percent 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.

The Commission’s €94.1 billion proposal for the next research programme, Horizon Europe, to run from 2021, contains the outline of a workable future relationship on science, with the UK as an associate member. But new rules say the country will no longer be able to take more out of the programme than it puts in, and associate countries will be excluded from some aspects, such as the newly created European Innovation Council. That means EU-27 countries should get more research funding because of Brexit.

“Decision making might be easier without the UK at the EU table,” said Glover, noting the UK’s history of putting up various roadblocks on further integration. Easier perhaps, but no one says better. “There will be a significant loss of leadership,” Glover said, with almost one in three EU projects currently run by a lead scientist based in the UK.

The UK government, amid political chaos, is committed to striking a new deal with the EU on science. Its latest Brexit strategy white paper says the UK wants to be a part of Horizon Europe, the Euratom research programme, JET, and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor fusion project. “Sometimes, with all the political noise you hear, it’s very easy to miss the clear signal that we’re very committed to science and innovation,” said Rebecca Endean, strategy director at UK Research and Innovation, the new organisation set up in April to bring all public research funding under a single umbrella.

As a demonstration of its commitment to research, the UK government has recently announced an increase in national funding.

This is not to offset expected funding loss from the EU, Endean says. “It’s very, very clear we’re investing because we care about science,” she said. “There is no debate about how important science is. What happens next will rely on wider elements of the negotiation. But with science, it’s undisputed; everyone in Britain really wants [a deal with the EU].”

It’s not clear that other EU countries share this eagerness. Croatia’s former science minister, Milena Žic-Fuchs, said she’s “not sure it’s going to be a love story” when countries get round to negotiating research. Universities’ concerns are just one piece of a much larger and horribly complicated puzzle.

“It would be wrong to think science is top of peoples’ agenda,” said Mark Ferguson, head of Science Foundation Ireland, and chief science adviser to the Irish government.

No other country is sweating over the UK’s vote to leave the EU more than Ireland. A hard Brexit – meaning a clean break with the bloc – will reverberate through the island, especially if there is a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland is worried about forecasts that Brexit could knock up to seven per cent off its GDP, and whether it needs to hire 2,000 customs officials and re-visit dense fishing legislation.

But in research, the country sees opportunities. It is unapologetically vying for a piece of the UK’s science pie. Around 10 per cent of the researchers based in the UK will leave because of Brexit, Ferguson predicts, and he makes no bones about looking to attract some to Ireland. “With Brexit, there is more upside than downside for Irish science,” he said. Already, a handful of science stars have been tempted across the water.

In Smits’ experience, “Not a single university says hurray, hurray, hurray, they’re gone. Quite the contrary,” he said. “But many universities, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, are desperate for talent, and people will be shopping big time for talent.”

For researchers in the UK, it is hard not to give way to pessimism.

Glover, who at one time served as chief science adviser to the Commission, before her role was controversially abolished, says her country, Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, is “being dragged out of EU against its will.”

Her solace: “Soon I hope to receive my Irish passport in the post. I’m a European Union citizen and no one is taking that away from me.”

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