Is Brexit also a goodbye to science and research cooperation?

Science and research are essential motors of prosperity for the EU, and the UK’s research sector has a lot to lose following Brexit, warns Paul Rübig.

Paul Ru¨big | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Paul Rübig

05 May 2017

Following the UK’s EU referendum, the British government has had to face an avalanche of decisions, despite not having prepared a single answer. The impact of the Leave vote has yet to reveal its full, enormous impact on British society.

Some debates before and after the referendum looked at the effect a Leave or Stay vote could have at political and economic level.

What would happen with free trade agreements? Would there be a loss of jobs in the UK? Would London - the financial heart of the world - exit the single market? Britain first - without the financial sector?


Not to mention, the extremely difficult question of how united the kingdom will be after Brexit. Will Scotland become independent? What will happen with Northern Ireland?

Being part of the European Union was, especially for Scotland, the number one reason to stay within the United Kingdom.

Yet one field that is crucial to the wealth of our continent was hardly debated - science and research. The UK, home to many well-known, highly respected and worldwide leading universities and research facilities, is part of a large network of science, innovation and research policy.

The British science community, which is extremely well-regarded throughout the world, was shocked by the Leave vote because it was - and still is - afraid of being cut off from European networks and funding.

An article on from August 2016 said, “An advocacy group, Scientists for EU, says it has gathered (in confidence) 25 cases of foreign scientists withdrawing job applications or being refused a UK post as a result of Brexit, seven cases of someone in UK science leaving the country, and 33 of disruption to funding for the EU’s Horizon 2020 research-grants programme.”

In January 2017, before the UK triggered article 50, a group of scientists published a roadmap for science and research in Britain after Brexit.

The European Union has the world’s largest research, science and innovation programme - Horizon 2020 - with funding of almost €75bn for scientific projects, research and innovation over the period 2014-2020. The UK is part of this programme.

To demonstrate its importance for the science community, here are some facts and figures about the UK and Horizon 2020. 5428 participants received €2.6bn. 1058 of them were SMEs, which received almost €400m. 39,900 applications were submitted to the programme (13.43 per cent of all applications across the member states) and the success rate was above the EU-average (13.3 per cent) at 14.8 per cent.

The United Kingdom is number one in the European Union for signed-up participants to this programme and number two in received budgets. The top five partners are Germany, Spain, Italy, France and The Netherlands.

The top 10 beneficiaries in the United Kingdom were the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Warwick, Sheffield, Southampton, the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine and University College London.

It’s understandable why the university sector is now acting in an unstable way, with funding for important projects in doubt. The question is, has the British government given its assurance to fund the projects of the Horizon 2020 programme till 2020 or beyond?

For many years now, one of my main priorities in the European Parliament is the field of science, research and innovation. I am convinced that - next to market economy, rule of law and democracy - these areas are fundamental to the wealth of our continent. Especially now, when globalisation brings countries, companies and people closer together than ever before.

It shakes and frightens me when I hear that countries want their nations to be ‘first’ - not to be first in innovation, science or freedom, but always in protection of their own markets and goods or when it comes to the military.

No country or society can prosper alone - there is almost no community that is as international, globalised and exchanging as the science community. Universities and research facilities compete for the best international students and professors, the most excellent researchers from all over the world.

Personally I hope that there will be no restrictions for students, for young people who want to explore the world, learn, and exchange their views.

As a Vice-Chair of the science and technology options assessment panel (STOA) - the scientific panel in the European Parliament - the European Union, as the best innovative region in the world, is not just a vision but a clear mandate. And one that is even better with the United Kingdom.

Read the most recent articles written by Paul Rübig - A digital recipe for European success

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