Scientific research

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How does the EU fund scientific research in the UK?

The EU uses ‘framework programmes’ to co-ordinate and fund the research and innovation activities taking place across EU member states and neighbouring countries.

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme, offering nearly £80 billion of funding to promote "excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling of societal challenges" over a period of seven years.

The UK is a major beneficiary of Horizon 2020. From 2014, the UK has received over €3.6 billion in new grants. The 24 Russell Group universities receive about £400 million a year in EU research funds, which equates to around 11% of their total research income.

The UK also uses its funding from the EU Structural and Investment Funds to support research and innovation projects, suggested to be around €1.6 billion between 2014 and 2020.

What does leaving the EU mean for the UK’s access to EU funding?

The UK Government and the European Commission have both reassured the scientific research community on continuity of funding. All UK-based projects will receive funding until the point of Brexit. UK-based projects could continue to apply for funding as usual and applications would not be judged on nationality but on merit. HM Treasury announced further support last year by committing to underwrite the payment of grants for projects that continue beyond the UK’s exit from the EU.

Despite these assurances, reports to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee suggest some UK partners are either being asked to ‘surrender’ their role as lead partner in consortiums funded by Horizon 2020 or to simply not take part.

How important is the EU for science collaboration?

International collaboration has become increasingly important in science. The requirement for multidisciplinary approaches and a combination of intellectual and physical resources means that currently more than half of the UK’s research output is the result of an international collaboration. 60% of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with EU partners. While the United States is the most frequent partner for UK-based researchers, seven of the top ten strongest collaborators are EU countries.

Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community, plays an important role in facilitating nuclear power research. As we explore in our Euratom explainer, the Government’s planned departure from Euratom could jeopardise access to funds, facilities and expertise in this area of scientific research.

Mobility is an important enabler of this collaboration: freedom of movement allows researchers to move freely within the EU and allows scientists to meet, share equipment or spend time in other facilities.

The EU has specific schemes in place to promote this mobility, with the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions supporting researchers to move within their countries, within the EU and to non-EU countries. There are also non-EU treaty schemes in Europe such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory that promote international collaboration outside of formal EU structures and will continue to do so post-Brexit.

One criticism of the current EU arrangement and the amount of funding available through it is that it encourages too much collaboration with the EU – to the point where non-EU partnerships suffer and international expertise is not used widely enough.

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

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

Horizon 2020 is a means of accessing a network of Europe’s top scientists, while the availability of its funding attracts scientists from the US, Japan and other countries worldwide.

There is concern that if it is no longer part of Horizon 2020 and implements a strict immigration regime, the UK will find it harder to attract the very best scientists from around the world.The Lords Science and Technology Committee has proposed that the Government should identify opportunities to host a new international research facility, of a scale comparable to the Francis Crick Institute, in partnership with governments or research funders from other countries.

It is not just top scientists that could be affected: mobility of staff and students in universities could decrease and the ‘casual visits’ by post-doctoral researchers as part of collaborative work could become more difficult. A new immigration regime would also mean added complexity for spouses, partners, and lab technicians, which could affect a scientist’s decision to relocate to the UK.

What will happen to European scientists currently working in the UK?

The EU and the UK Government are currently negotiating the issue of citizen rights, covering EU nationals living and working in the UK and vice versa. Both sides have outlined their opening positions and there are some areas of disagreement. The final outcome of this negotiation is not yet clear.  

However, the Commons Science and Technology Committee has heard evidence that Brexit could result in a ‘brain drain’, with researchers "seriously considering” leaving the UK. There are currently no legal or visa issues requiring European scientists to consider their positions in the UK, as the UK Government is yet to announce its position on this, but the uncertainty and the emotional response to the referendum result is reportedly causing some to actively seek jobs in other countries.

What might leaving the EU mean for scientific regulation, for example, on medicines?

It is not yet clear whether the UK will seek its own licensing procedures for medicines or if the Government will accept the judgement of the EU and mirror legislation.

Keeping EU legislation may be preferable in many cases, as it is simpler to have a single set of rules across Europe. This is particularly necessary if the UK is to continue to participate and benefit from medical trials that go across European borders; the UK would struggle to build a sufficient sample size if it were to conduct tests itself.

A difference in regulation would also require organisations, including global pharmaceutical businesses, to have products tested twice – once against EU regulations, and a second against the UK’s. The UK’s comparatively smaller market means organisations would likely focus on getting approval in the EU before attempting to enter the British market.

However, regulatory divergence represents an opportunity for the UK to focus on areas that might result in a global competitive advantage – such as genetic modification.

What are the major opportunities for scientific research as a result of Brexit?

The post-Brexit industrial strategy is seen as a significant opportunity for those working in the field of scientific research. It is an opportunity for the UK Government to give science and innovation renewed focus and funding, and to use the industrial strategy as a statement of its ambition and commitment to protect the UK’s position as a global leader in science research.

Brexit also offers the UK an opportunity to support research collaboration between business and universities through a change to VAT rules, as recommended by the 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, not just in providing the UK with a competitive advantage in areas such as genetic modification. Wholesale review of regulation could allow the UK to create a bespoke environment for attractive and innovative research that is not possible under current EU legislation and regulations. The European State Aid legislation also limits the Government’s ability to invest in the private sector, and Brexit could allow government to tailor research and development schemes to benefit target sectors of the UK economy more effectively.

What is the UK government proposing for future science collaboration?

The Department for Exiting the EU has published a “future partnership paper” on collaboration for science and innovation. It sets out the benefits to the EU of collaboration with the UK and outlines a large number of precedents of non-EU countries participating in EU programmes. It also stresses that it wants the UK to continue to attract “the brightest and best” researchers after freedom of movement ends. It also envisages “continued close working” with the European Medicines Agency and to “build on its extensive history of working with EU partners on nuclear research” when the UK leaves Euratom.

What about money?

Reports earlier in the week suggested the UK might make an offer to contribute £1bn for continued participation. No figure appears in the final paper, and instead it notes the need to negotiate “terms of UK participation…. these terms will include the size of any financial contribution which the UK would need to weigh against other spending priorities”.

What sort of figure might be in play?

It is difficult to show what the UK contributes now to EU R&D, or what could be an appropriate “fee” for access after Brexit, since research programmes are funded from the general EU Budget.

However, as a recent House of Lords report illustrated, the UK’s gross contribution to the EU budget in 2014 (after the rebate) was £14.4 billion (approximately €17.3 billion). Horizon 2020 expenditure that year was €6.5 billion – or 4.7% of the total EU budget of €139 billion. A rough estimate of the current “fee” paid by the UK for its participation in Horizon 2020 could therefore be around €809 million. In the same year, the UK received around £1.25 billion in research grants from the same programme.

A total of 13 “associated countries” outside the EU contribute to the EU science budget in proportion to their GDP which enables their researchers and organisations to apply for Horizon 2020 funding with the same status as those from EU Member States. However, this ratio is established by the European Commission, and there does not appear to be a uniform formula for calculating the contribution across the associated countries.

To make it even harder, contributions are often part  of a lump sum to pay for participation a range of EU-funded programmes. For example, for the period between 2014 to 2020, Norway’s average annual commitment was €447 million for participation in 12 EU programmes, which included contributions to Horizon 2020, Erasmus+, Galileo and Copernicus. As the paper notes, most third country participants in Horizon 2020 are not eligible for EU funding and fund their own participation.

Update date: 
Thursday, September 7, 2017