The future of UK science lies in the balance of Brexit

UK research benefits from more EU funding than it pays for, so there are serious doubts the British government will be able to fill the gap, warns Ulrich Samm.

The future of UK science lies in the balance of Brexit | Photo credit: Fotolia

By Ulrich Samm

05 May 2017

The European Union is home to world-class scientific research based on a border-free network of cooperation and has excellent research infrastructure.

Funding is provided by national programmes in the member states and by various EU funding instruments, including Horizon 2020.

This is a key policy instrument that contributes to sustainable European economic growth and competitiveness by reinforcing the EU’s innovation capacity. Horizon 2020 is the world’s largest public funding programme for research and innovation.


British institutions have tended to do rather well from the EU science funding pot in recent years. In addition, the UK recruits many of its best researchers from Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants. British universities are by far the most successful in attracting framework programme funding.

It is therefore not surprising that in her Brexit speech to Parliament on 17 January 2017, (entitled ‘The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union’) Theresa May clearly expressed her commitment to continuing this success story: “As we exit the EU, we would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives”.

This aim is even underpinned by financial commitments: “The government will work with the European Commission to ensure payment when funds are awarded and HM Treasury will underwrite the payment of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU.

The guarantees that HM Treasury has provided sent a clear message to UK businesses and universities that, while we remain a member of the EU, they should continue to bid for competitive EU funding.”

This is good news for all researchers and innovators in Europe. But what about those working under the Euratom treaty, which predates the formation of the EU and is therefore not automatically linked to Brexit?

The British government has clearly stated that the UK would also leave Euratom, as the EU and Euratom are currently bound together on a unique legal basis. Thus, Brexit also means Brexatom. Potentially, the most striking effect of this move could be on the operations of the EU-funded JET nuclear fusion facility in Culham, UK, which currently receives around €56m annually from Euratom.

The shocked scientists in Culham have been reassured by a statement from the Minister of State for universities, science, research and innovation, Jo Johnson, who said, “Maintaining and building on our world-leading fusion expertise and securing alternative routes into the international fusion R&D projects such as the Joint European Torus (JET) project at Culham and the ITER project in France, will be a priority.”

These are very clear messages. No damage to research and innovation. All projects will continue and all researchers should keep calm and carry on. Can we trust this?

There are serious doubts as to whether an agreement to continue to collaborate on major science, research and technology initiatives can really be achieved.

The obstacles are not raised by the research and innovation community, which would like to keep the British on board. British researchers have an excellent reputation and are highly respected within Europe’s research communities. And universities are inevitably a natural home for those who identify with Europe.

One crucial question is: how much does this cost the UK? Britain attracts more research funding than it pays for. For example, in the 2007-2013 financial framework, the UK contributed €5.4bn to EU research and development funds and received €8.8bn back.

One possibility could be that the UK pays this sum to the EU in order to remain part of the next framework programme, so that its involvement is cost-neutral to the EU. Maybe the EU member states could agree on this specific issue.

The Brexit deal, however, will cover many more issues than just research and innovation. It may be difficult - if not impossible - to reach agreement on all issues of key importance to the EU. The free movement of people is one of them.

Switzerland might serve as an example here. The EU has made Switzerland’s associated country membership of Horizon 2020 conditional on its continuing to accept freedom of movement. Switzerland dropped out of the Erasmus programme for two years.

This year, Switzerland has been fully readmitted to the EU’s research programmes after the Swiss Parliament backed a compromise solution that will see the country continue to accept the free movement of people. But Switzerland is a simple case compared to Brexit.

Finally, the complex Brexit deal must be approved as a whole by the EU27 and their national parliaments. The need for a unanimous vote represents the greatest obstacle.

Research and innovation is no doubt a priority, but not all member states are as enthusiastic about the EU research programme as those that have been active and successful in Horizon 2020.

Whether research and innovation will continue as Theresa May depicted in her January speech will depend, crucially, on other quite different issues.


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