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Scientific research after Brexit


​How does the EU currently fund scientific research in the UK?

The EU uses ‘framework programmes’ to co-ordinate and fund research and innovation across, and between, EU member states and neighbouring countries.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme 2014–20. It offered nearly €80 billion of funding to promote "excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling of societal challenges". Horizon funding was allocated in a number of ways, including by the European Research Council and under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.

The UK has been the second largest contributor to Horizon 2020 – at €6.9 billion – and has also been a major beneficiary, receiving 14% of the total funds allocated.[1] In 2015/16, EU research grants and contracts accounted for 11% of the 24 Russell Group universities total funding.

The UK also uses funding from the EU Structural and Investment Funds to support research and innovation projects.

What impact has Brexit already had?

The number of UK researchers applying for Horizon 2020 funding since the EU referendum has fallen. Analysis by the Royal Society shows that between 2015 and 2018 funding applications fell almost 40%.[2]

What difference would a future relationship agreement make?

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, UK scientists and researchers can continue to bid for and receive EU grant funding– provided they apply before the end of the transition period. This covers projects that will extend beyond 31 December.

But after the UK leaves the transition period, researchers from the UK will have less access to EU programmes as the majority of EU funding goes directly to member states.

The government’s Research and Development Roadmap[3] states that the UK will consider participating in EU programmes and funding streams as part of a “fair and balanced deal”. The UK government’s negotiating mandate recognises that participation would be on a ‘third country’ (non-EU) basis, as for example Israel does.

The EU’s next funding programme for research and innovation is Horizon Europe. It will run from 2021 to 2027 to coincide with the next seven-year EU budget. The proposed budget is €80.9 billion, smaller than originally planned.

In October 2020, a group of senior scientists from groups including Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Institute and the Francis Crick Institute, warned that failing to participate in Horizon Europe would fracture European research collaboration, undermine the programme and hold back UK efforts to compete on the global stage.[4]

If the UK does not formally associate with EU research programmes, the UK government has said it would implement ‘ambitious alternatives’ to address funding gaps. But in the letter, senior scientists warned that domestic efforts to replicate the scheme cannot replace the value of a multi-lateral programme.

Disagreements centre around how much the UK would pay into the scheme and how much it would receive – with Universities UK estimating a net contribution of £3bn over the programme’s seven-year life.[5]

What does Brexit mean for the UK’s reputation for attracting top scientists?

The UK’s scientific community is dependent on international talent, both European and non-European:

  • In 2018/19, among academic staff with a known nationality, 18% had an EU (excluding the UK) nationality, and 14% were from outside of the EU.[6] This was an increase from 16% and 12% respectively in 2016.
  • 54% of postgraduate students are non-UK nationals.

EU scientists moving to the UK from 1 January 2021 will have to comply with new UK immigration requirements; with most likely to use the new ‘skilled worker’ route which requires a job offer, certain language abilities and a minimum salary. The new ‘points based’ system gives additional weight to applicants with PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job they’re applying for, which could help scientists, engineers and academics. From January 2021, a small number of specially-skilled EU citizens will be eligible to apply for the new Global Talent Visa.

The Horizon programmes have generated a network of Europe’s top scientists and the ability to access Horizon funding has helped to attract scientists from around the world to come and conduct research in the UK (and the rest of the EU). If the UK loses access to EU research and innovation funding networks, it could become a less attractive destination for EU researchers.

Between 2015 and 2018, the number of scientists coming to the UK through the EU’s Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowships, specifically designed to increase international mobility, has fallen by 35%. The Royal Society suggests this is a sign that the UK is becoming a less attractive destination for top international talent. In June 2020, the chair of the Royal Society wrote to Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove calling for a commitment to Horizon Europe or risk increasing the likelihood of an “exodus of scientific talent”.[7]

How will Brexit affect international collaboration?

International collaboration has become increasingly important in scientific research, as demonstrated by the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the US is the UK’s single most frequent partner country, the UK collaborates extensively with the EU and is a top five collaboration partner to each of the 27 EU countries participating in Horizon 2020.[8] UK-based researchers have been heavily involved in Covid-19-related projects funded by the European Research Council, leading 20% of them.[9]

If the UK loses access to EU funding programmes and networks — particularly Horizon Europe — it could become a less attractive collaborator. Although Brexit could also encourage more varied international collaboration with scientists based outside of the EU.

What are the opportunities for scientific research post-Brexit?

The post-Brexit industrial strategy could present an opportunity to expand scientific research. The UK currently invests just 1.71% of GDP on research and development,[10] lower than international competitors like the US (2.8%) and Germany (3.1%).  The UK government has committed to increasing R&D investment to 2.4% by 2027, with a longer-term goal of 3%.

Brexit also offers the UK an opportunity to support research collaboration between business and universities by changing VAT rules, as recommended by the 2015 Dowling Review. Publicly-funded research institutes are, under current EU rules, able to avoid VAT payments if they limit their on-site commercial activity to 5%. This limit could be revisited by the UK post-Brexit, to encourage greater university-business co-location and activity.

Regulatory reform is another key opportunity. Wholesale review of regulation could allow the UK to create a bespoke environment to attract innovative research. EU state aid rules limit the government’s ability to invest in the private sector. Depending on the outcome of the UK–EU future relationship negotiations, the government may be able to target research and development schemes to specific sectors of the UK economy more easily. This may fit into the governments wider stated agenda of ‘levelling up’ regions across the UK.


[2] Royal Society, ‘Brexit uncertainty harming UK science’, 16 October 2019,

[3] Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, UK Research and Development Roadmap, July 2020,

[4] Bonhoeffer T, Farrer J, Lamy P, Leptin M, Nurse P, letter, 15 October 2020,

[5]Gallardo C, Cooper C, ‘Top scientists push ‘final opportunity’ for EU-UK research deal’, Politico, 21 October 2020,

[6] HESA, ‘Higher education Staff Statistics: UK, 2018/29’, 23 January 2020,

[8] Department for Exiting the European  Union, Collaboration on science and innovation, Future Partnerships Paper,

[9] The Royal Society, ‘The UK and Horizon Europe: Royal Society position statement’, 25 September 2020,

[10] Rhodes C, Hutton G, Ward M, ‘Research and development spending’, House of Commons Library, 17 June 2020,,real%20terms%20increase%20of%20101%25.


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