Science could become collateral damage of Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Scientific laboratory [Georgi Gotev]

A no-deal Brexit at the end of the year, or even a minimal, thin-deal Brexit, with no provision for cooperation on science, innovation and other crucial fields, would deliver a serious blow to economic competitiveness in the UK and the EU, writes Sir Michael Leigh.

Sir Michael Leigh is Senior fellow, Bruegel, Brussels, adjunct professor, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS-Europe.

Science, research and innovation may become collateral damage of Brexit. Mauro Ferrari, head of the European Research Council, has warned that decades of cooperation, from which Britain has been a big winner, are at risk. “You don’t mess with a winning team,” he said recently. Yet cooperation will grind to a halt at the end of the year unless the UK and the EU act quickly to prolong it.

Joint research is win-win for the UK and the EU. It has led to breakthroughs in cancer treatment, the reduction of cardiovascular disease, robotics, food security, safe, clean and efficient energy and other cutting-edge fields. The UK has scooped up a fifth of EU finding for science and research, strengthening economic competitiveness on both sides of the channel, at a time when research and technology are powering ahead across the globe.

The UK’s top ten research partner countries are in Europe. Similarly, the UK is a significant research partner for many EU countries. For example, co-authored papers with UK-based authors represent more than 10% of the research output of the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark and Ireland.

In Horizon 2020, the EU’s current framework programme for research and innovation, the UK is one of the top five research partners for almost every member. So significant mutual interests are at stake in finding ways to continue cooperation after Brexit.

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson wants to attract the best and the brightest among scientists and researchers to Britain and has announced changes to immigration procedures to facilitate this. He has spoken of Britain’s “incredible assets: our scientists, our engineers, our world-leading universities” and his advisers want to promote science cooperation with Europe and beyond.

But the British government has yet to spell out how this can be achieved. The very principle of the UK’s association with the EU’s new 100 billion euro “Horizon Europe” programme, scheduled to begin next January, still needs to be agreed. The value of this programme is not only financial, it is mostly about access to bright scientific minds, research centres, their achievements and equipment.

Association with Horizon Europe would be a cost-effective way to attract top flight scientists to the UK. Failing this, Britain might qualify for more distant “third country” status, without involvement in shaping the programme, or could even drop out entirely.

Thorny issues like the UK’s financial contribution to future joint research activities, the mobility of scientists and their families, Britain’s role in decision-making, data protection, laboratory standards and dispute settlement will unavoidably be caught up in the broader future partnership negotiations.

Yet solutions can be found to all these difficult issues. Recently the Wellcome Trust and Bruegel, a leading Brussels think tank, simulated the negotiation of a UK-EU science and innovation agreement. British and EU researchers formed the core of teams representing the two sides.

They hammered our compromise solutions to tricky issues in three intense negotiating rounds in Brussels and London. Some issues, like voting rights, proved much more amenable to a settlement than respective red lines suggested, as in practice votes are seldom taken in the relevant committees. Similarly, no case arising from scientific cooperation has ever gone to the European Court of Justice. On money, both sides in the simulation could agree to a pay-as-you-go system and compensation mechanism to ensure that British contributions and receipts are in balance.

Clearly, a simulation, however instructive, is one thing, real world negotiations are another. In the real world, political leaders will want to see agreement on the EU’s future budget for the period covered by Horizon Europe, (the “MFF”) and agreement on the framework for future UK-EU relations, before signing off on a science agreement, however beneficial it may be. They will be wary of a stand-alone science agreement, despite its economic and commercial importance, until the bigger picture is clear. The EU will decry “cherry picking” and the UK will insist on its sovereign prerogatives.

But a break in continuity would erode Europe’s competitiveness in science and research. Already the number of new European joint projects involving the UK has fallen alarmingly. A no-deal Brexit at the end of the year, or even a minimal, thin-deal Brexit, with no provision for cooperation on science, innovation and other crucial fields, would deliver a serious blow to economic competitiveness in the UK and the EU.

The main take away from the Wellcome Trust-Bruegel simulation is that continued cooperation between the UK and the EU on science, research and innovation is both desirable and feasible. The obstacles to the conclusion of an agreement in this vital field can be overcome with political vision and a spirit of compromise. The issue needs to be addressed early in this year’s UK-EU negotiations to maintain continuity in these vital fields.  As Professor Ferrari observed:  “The stakes are so high. It is in everybody’s interest that a solution that is as good as the current one or better is found.”

Subscribe to our newsletters