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UK to continue working closely with EU on science post-Brexit, report says

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The report reiterates the importance of collaborating with Europe on major scientific projects following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and reassures researchers that many international projects could continue.

British researchers have benefitted from free movement of researchers across the continent and from European research funding programs: winning a sixth of total funds awarded through the EU’s €80 billion (£73 billion) Horizon 2020 scheme. The UK government has stated that it wishes for the country to remain a “hub” for international talent.

“The UK has a strong history of collaborating with European partners on science and innovation through EU, pan-European and bilateral initiatives […] The UK is committed to building on these successes,” the report begins.

“In the spirit of continued partnership, this paper outlines the UK’s objectives for an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU. By tackling the most significant research questions of the future together, we will achieve far more than we would working apart.”

Areas mentioned in the report include space exploration, nuclear research and continuing to develop new therapies through the European Medicines Agency and existing EU framework programmes.

The report suggests that UK researchers could continue collaborating with their European colleagues in programs such as CERN, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, JET, a European-funded nuclear fusion facility, Galileo, the European navigation satellite system, and Copernicus, which uses satellite data to develop information services. The report notes that non-EU countries partake in Galileo and Copernicus, as well as being beneficiaries of the Horizon 2020 framework.

“From space exploration and developing better and safe medicines, to nuclear fusion research, the UK and Europe have a long history of close collaboration to meet the world’s great challenges,” said Jo Johnson MP, the Science Minister.

“It’s in our mutual benefit to maintain this successful partnership and this paper clearly outlines our desire to have a full and open discussion with the EU to shape our joint future.”

Dr Rob Davidson, CEO and co-founder of campaign group Scientists4EU, refers to the proposal of continuing to benefit from EU science schemes while separating the UK from European regulations, pooled funding systems and establishing barriers to free movement as an “empty boast”.

“The government has been warned that there are contracts coming up for important programs like Copernicus and that the UK looks set to lose out on valuable participation if there is no clear commitment. Researchers are already leaving and the longer the uncertainty goes on, the more will leave,” he told E&T. “The UK has great institutions […] but they are built on an international workforce.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis MP has said a “global Britain” of the future must partake in international research collaborations.

“A global Britain must be a country that looks to the future. That means being one of the best places in the world for science and innovation,” Davis said in a statement.

“This paper sends a clear message to the research and innovation community that we value their work and we feel it is crucial we maintain collaboration with our European partners after we exit.”

According to Dr Davidson, however, for the paper to seriously commit to protecting science post-Brexit, it must recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and accept freedom of movement, as Switzerland – often heralded as an example of a non-EU country participating in European science – has done. Neither is conceded in the report.

Meanwhile, Dr Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, welcomed the “softer approach” of the report.

“The UK is exceptionally strong in science and our collaborations with EU researchers are a huge contributor to our success,” she wrote in a statement. “Brexit poses considerable risks for science, so it’s great to see the Government making continued collaborative links with the EU a priority in the negotiations.”

“To make the most out of this overture to continue scientific collaboration with the EU, the Government must start making firm commitments on migration, regulation and scientific funding that push in the same direction to ensure the UK truly benefits from being a global leader in science and engineering.”

By setting out a series of “future partnership papers”, of which this is the fifth, the government could be seen as attempting to move discussion away from divorce itself and instead to the nature of the UK’s partnership with Europe after it leaves the union in March 2019.

However, EU officials have asserted the future partnership cannot be discussed until “sufficient progress” has been made on key areas: a financial settlement, the rights of Europeans resident in the UK and the thorny issue of the UK’s border with Ireland.

Davis continues to insist the UK will not pay a £50 billion “divorce settlement” on its exit from the EU; has referred to Brussels’ approach as “silly”, and called for greater flexibility on its part in negotiations.

The report also makes mention of the UK’s soon-to-be-discontinued membership of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). This coincides with a fresh warning from the Nuclear Industry Association of a “significant potential impact” on the new £18 billion Hinkley C nuclear power plant and consequently on Britain’s electricity supply.

“It’s a very real potential disruption [for Britain’s electricity supply] if you come out of Euratom and you don’t have successful arrangements in place relatively quickly,” said Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the association.

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