Brexit could damage the UK's research and innovation sector, experts have agreed, but discussions are already underway about how to minimise any such impact and stave off any potential decline.
Pre-referendum surveys of the sector provided a clear pro-EU picture. In a joint study by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) and the Engineering Professor’s Council, 93 per cent of 400 respondents considered EU membership a major benefit. While the campaign Scientists for EU gathered almost 140,000 Facebook followers, the rival campaign Scientists for Britain attracted less than 2,500. However, the public has spoken and Brexit it is.
“Science and engineering are going to be substantially affected by Brexit,” said CASE director Sarah Main. “The sector substantially benefited from being part of the EU, so it follows that there is a substantial risk in leaving the EU and we don’t know how that will work out.”
The UK’s researchers have had an outstanding track record of winning EU funding. While the country has always been a net contributor to the overall EU budget, it has been a net receiver of science and research funding. In the 2007-13 period, the UK paid €5.4bn towards EU R&D programmes, but its research institutions won €8.8bn in EU grants. These EU money taps are set to close two years after the UK triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, initiating the process of Brexit.
“We have to lobby government to maintain the current levels of funding, which we now get from the EU for both university research but also university and industry collaboration,” Stephanie Haywood, President of the Engineering Professors' Council and Professor of Optoelectronic Engineering at the University of Hull, told E&T.
“A lot of EU funded research has an applied dimension and that’s going to be very important for the UK economically in the future as well as for the universities now.”
Ahead of the Brexit vote, Leave campaigners were confident the UK government wouldn’t struggle to replace the missing EU funding using resources it would no longer need to send to the EU. Haywood questions this assumption.
“There will be a lot of people competing for government funding to make up the gap from Europe," she said. "Farmers are going to want what they now get through the common agricultural policy, for example. Regional development is another area that will be seeking support. Everyone will be wanting to make sure that they can maintain their current levels of funding and some groups have been led to believe they will get more outside the EU, yet the economy is certainly going to shrink.
“There won’t be as much money to go around so I think we will be very lucky if we maintain the current levels of research funding.”
That the maths won’t be as simple as the Leave campaigners had argued ahead of the vote was essentially confirmed by the great architect of Brexit himself, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In the first hours after the results, Farage admitted that not even the prioritised NHS is likely to receive the money promised by the Leave campaigners. The Scientists for Britain campaign, which advocated the stance, didn’t respond to E&T’s enquiries.
Money is not everything. Great research in the 21st century is done on the international level and the loss of international collaborations and access to facilities is what the UK researchers fear the most. Anecdotal reports have emerged of UK researchers being asked by their European colleagues to remove their names from joint applications for Horizon 2020 funding. Leading EU researchers about to take up positions in the UK have been reportedly changing their minds due to the uncertainty over their future status in the country.
“Our European partners are already asking whether it is worth involving UK partners in Horizon 2020 projects,” said Haywood. “I think it would be very easy for us to lose contacts and to lose collaborations, which we currently have and which are important on many levels. There are also things like the Erasmus scheme, Marie Curie and other staff mobility schemes that we currently have and that are a very important stimulus. We should lobby to keep them going beyond Brexit.”
Once outside the EU, the UK research community would push for the Associated Country status that would allow cooperation on Horizon 2020 and future research programmes. There are currently 15 Associated Countries, including Switzerland whose future is uncertain due to the country’s refusal to ratify free movement for citizens of Croatia. Although outside the EU as well as the European Economic Area, Switzerland is part of the European Single Market and is therefore bound by the requirement of free movement.
However, there are other Associated Countries, such as Israel, for which the free movement of people – the major decider in the Brexit referendum – does not apply.
“There are models of countries with the associated status and they are all slightly different based on what each of those countries negotiated with the EU,” said Main.
“People talk about the Swiss model, the model of Israel, the model of Norway. They all are Associated Countries and the access they have to the European Union facilities varies depending on what was negotiated and varies over time depending on the policies of that particular country.”
The Norwegian example, many believe, would provide the most straightforward way in case of no restrictions to the free movement in post-Brexit Britain. The Scandinavian country with a population of 5.2 million and the second highest GDP per capita in Europe contributes more to the European research budget than it receives, but its academics are happy to accept that.
“The quality of the research coming from that money is more important than funding more weaker national research projects in nation-wide programmes,” Professor Gunnar Bovim, rector of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST), the largest higher education in the Scandinavian country, told E&T.
“We encourage our researchers to participate in EU-funded projects despite the fact that, unlike in most European countries, 50 per cent of their paid time is by default free for research as part of the regular government funding for universities.”
Such is the importance of EU-funded research for the Norwegians, that NUST set up an office in Brussels last September in order to increase its participation in Horizon 2020 projects.
Bovim believes that thanks to Norway’s high financial contribution to European research programmes, the country has a decent influence over the research agenda despite not having any decision-making powers in the EU itself.
“We do participate in the shaping of the research programmes,” he said. “We can take part in the committees and we can take part in the juries for the research programme.”
He called for the EU and the UK to find a way forward for future research cooperation despite the political differences because "nothing is as universal as research and education".
According to Main, it’s up to the British researchers to make sure their voices are sufficiently heard in the pre-Brexit frenzy.
“We shouldn’t be complacent in thinking that just because some countries have achieved the Associated Country status that it follows that the UK can do the same,” she said. “It really depends on the political environment and negotiations and the settlement that is reached.
"I don’t think it is an automatic thing, it is a political thing, it is a political debate and that’s why science needs to be present in that political debate because you can’t automatically assume that the deals will be structured in the benefit of the sector unless we are arguing for it.”