It is fair to say that the result on the 23rd of June was not what the majority of those involved in research wanted. Despite reassurances from the government of the recognised importance of international funding through the European Framework programme, there has been no guarantee that access to the successor of Horizon 2020 will be at the forefront of negotiations. This has left people guessing at what the picture will look like after the UK leaves.
With the triggering of Article 50 imminent, this post will look at a few of the more likely scenarios and the outlook for international collaborative research.
With so much uncertainty surrounding negotiations, it’s important to start with the facts.
Firstly, there has been assurances from the UK government that there will be no change to UK participation and funding until the UK formally leaves the EU (likely to be 2019), with the government underwriting awards up to that point.
Secondly, Carlos Moedas (EU Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner) has stated that there should be no conscious or unconscious bias against UK applications and indeed has arranged additional briefings for evaluators to reinforce this point.
Thirdly the UK is leaving – barring a political or economic black swan type event- therefore full membership of the European Framework programme following exit is not going to be possible.
The most likely option for the UK to continue with participation is as an associated country. There are (as of 1 January 2017) 16 countries associated to Horizon 2020. Each of these has an individual agreement that has been negotiated with the Commission and covers one Framework programme – as such the agreement has to be renegotiated between subsequent programmes. Each of these agreements are different, and many (e.g. Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Albania) do not require free movement of labour which would be a bonus for the UK as curbing free movement is seen as a high priority for the UK government.
Unfortunately, the specifics of the UK situation complicate matters. The UK is consistently one of the top beneficiaries of the Horizon 2020 programme in terms of projects won, and this is further compounded by the net gain in Euros that the UK receives – The UK is the most successful within Horizon 2020 in terms of net money in/net money out (interestingly Germany – who are similar to the UK in terms of raw Horizon 2020 income – are actually one of the worst performing in terms of net money).
What this will actually mean in terms of how this will impact the negotiations towards the UK’s position as an associated country of the European Framework Programme is difficult to predict. One could expect it is not going to be as straightforward as it would be for one of the present associated countries with favorable entry terms (as they are weaker in terms of research power, therefore benefit less from competitive funding).
Switzerland presents an interesting illustration in this respect. Following a vote to restrict freedom of movement from Croatia their access to Horizon 2020 was restricted (although they still had full access to pillar 1). There have been commentators suggesting that the UK is headed for a similar fate, however this misses the point that Switzerland lost access because they were in breach of their associated partner agreement (which included the free movement of persons agreement) not because they restricted free movement of persons per se.
The future of the UK in the European Framework programme is uncertain, however there is an opportunity for the UK to rejoin as an associate partner. What remains to be seen is whether the price that the UK has to pay in order to rejoin is going to be too high for the government to agree to. With this in mind it is important that the UK research and University systems and subsequent framework programmes, are not ignored.
You can help with that. MPs will listen to their constituents – so send them a letter, or better still try and meet with them at a constituency surgery. Beyond this grassroots approach there are several lobby groups that are active in this area, so it’s worth making contact to find out how you can make your voice heard.
Regardless of the precise nature of Brexit, there is going to be a difficult and sticky period of uncertainty and likely less funding opportunity. Thus all projects starting, or even those just approved for funding (which the UK government will honour) in the next 2 years will provide a cushion during that interim period post Brexit. For the next 2 years all EU opportunities should thus be targeted as much as possible while the opportunity is still there. However, a word of caution: don’t make your project too UK centric, it is very important to ensure that the European dimension is paramount.