The UK is second only to Germany as the most common partner for Swedish research groups within Horizon 2020. There is great concern among researchers about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU in 2019. The picture is from the University of Cambridge.

Uncertain future for British research without the EU

Svenska 2016-11-10

There is a great deal of concern among UK scientists as the country prepares to leave the EU. British research receives a lot of funding from the EU and the free movement of labour makes it easier to recruit the best scientists from all over Europe. Swedish-British partnerships may also be affected.

The UK intends to leave the EU in 2019. Article 50 is likely to be triggered in March 2017, which will initiate two years of negotiations.

Johan Lindberg

Johan Lindberg

“There is a certain amount of concern”, says Johan Lindberg, adviser at Vinnova for Swedish research groups seeking funds from the EU’s research programme Horizon 2020.

Many people have contacted Vinnova since the Brexit campaign won the referendum in June. The UK is second only to Germany as the most common partner for Swedish research groups within Horizon 2020, which so far has distributed approximately SEK 2 billion per year to projects in which Swedish organisations are involved.

Ian Manners

Ian Manners

Political scientist Ian Manners is one of the points of contact for Brexit questions at the University of Copenhagen. He has mainly been contacted by journalists but also by Swedish and Danish researchers.

“Researchers ask questions about the details, such as ‘Who should I be signing agreements with to ensure that they will continue to be valid after the UK has left?’ To this, there is currently no answer.”

For the moment, everything is continuing as usual

The British government has promised to respect the outcome of the referendum. In October, prime minister Theresa May announced that the government will formally notify the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave the EU at the end of March 2017, thereby activating Article 50.

So for the moment, everything is continuing as usual.

Lucia Caudet

Lucia Caudet

“Until the membership is terminated, the UK will continue to be a member state with all the rights and obligations that are associated with EU membership”, announced Lucía Caudet, spokesperson for the European Commission’s department for enterprise, innovation and research, through her press officer.

“Until this point, legal persons and researchers from the UK are entitled to participate in EU projects and to receive EU funding.”

No negotiations until Article 50 is activated

When asked by Curie, nobody from the European Commission either can or is willing to speculate about the consequences for the research community. It is only when Article 50 is triggered that the next, major step will be taken.

In his press conference on 3rd October, the Commission’s spokesperson Margaritis Schinas emphasised that they are not willing – as Theresa May would like – to initiate preparatory discussions before Article 50 has been activated. “No negotiation without notification”, he repeated. It is not until Article 50 has been triggered that negotiations will begin.

“And nobody knows how these negotiations will go. If the UK is to participate in Horizon 2020, they must either have some national funding earmarked for it or pay some form of fee to the EU. It is the membership fee that partly funds the research budget”, says Johan Lindberg of Vinnova.

Uncertainty for EU projects

There is acute concern among British researchers regarding the fate of ongoing projects as part of Horizon 2020. When the country leaves the EU they risk being left with projects that rely on Horizon funds which, at that stage, will only partly have been paid out. In August, the government promised that they would compensate the research funding that a project would otherwise have received as part of Horizon 2020.

Anne Glover

Anne Glover

Anne Glover, vice principal of the University of Aberdeen and former scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, points out, however, that this compensation only applies to projects already initiated within Horizon 2020. It will not replace the EU funding that research teams would have been able to apply for after 2019 if the UK had remained in the EU.

It is unclear whether research will be given any priority in a future government budget or in the negotiations with the European Commission.

Adrian Bird

Adrian Bird

Adrian Bird, professor of genetics at Edinburgh University, is not confident that research will receive any protection.

“I am waiting to see what will happen in negotiations. I worry that research will be one of the bargaining chips, whereas in a vibrant society  it should be something to keep at all costs. Politicians are often shortsighted, so science can be considered a luxury.”

If the economy is adversely affected by the withdrawal from the EU, there will also be less money available to spend on a research budget, fears both Anne Glover and Adrian Bird.

The majority of British researchers are deeply concerned about Brexit. A number of petitions have been conducted with the aim of having this issue discussed in the British parliament. One of these collected almost 40,000 signatures.

“I signed a few that resulted in parliamentary  debates. We were not successful, but at least they led to our argument being heard”, says Adrian Bird.

Continued close collaboration

Michael Moody

Michael Moody

Michael Moody, head of science & innovation Nordics (SIN) at the UK Embassy in Stockholm, has just taken up his position when Curie asks about the future of Swedish-British research projects.

“We will work to ensure that the close research partnership between the UK and Sweden continues”, asserts Michael Moody.

When asked if he has been given any specific directives as a result of the referendum, Michael Moody replies that, even in the future, SIN has been charged with the responsibility to stimulate cooperation between the Nordic countries and the United Kingdom, particularly as part of Horizon 2020.

“Research is an area that, by definition, transcends borders. There will still be collaborations in the future, although they may perhaps look a bit different.”

He also believes that the UK will continue to be a world-leader in international research and innovation partnerships.

Less excellent research

Anne Glover doesn’t agree.

“Nobody knows how the future will turn out. But what is most likely is that, over the next 5-10 years, we will see a progressive reduction in the amount of excellent research conducted in the UK.”

She believes that this will be the effect of the restriction of access to both research funding from the EU and the free movement of labour.

“If you are only able to recruit from the UK and not from the whole of Europe, you will not be getting the very best researchers.”

The importance of being able to work freely within the EU is also highlighted by Adrian Bird.

“Research is more dependent than ever on international collaboration. People should be free to come and go.”

He is proud of the fact that the UK has a productive and successful research culture that attracts people of talent. But today, Brexit is having an impact on the working climate.

“We have many research leaders here from other EU countries – the laboratory next to mine is led by a German. Brexit is threatening their sense of loyalty.”

Living in uncertainty

Aldina Feldman

Adina Feldman

For the past three years, Adina Feldman from Sweden has held a postdoctoral post working with epidemiology at the University of Cambridge. She points out that many of the reasons she wanted to go there still remain today.

However, a weaker pound and the risk that there will be less money available for research creates a sense of uncertainty about the future. But, above all, the question affecting Adina is for how much longer she will be able to live and work in the UK under the same conditions as today.

“Those of us who are EU citizens and live and work here – but who have not yet been in the country for five years – are living in uncertainty regarding our future status. There is also a feeling that we are no longer as welcome as we were before.”

Those who come from non-EU countries currently face major obstacles and costs to be able to live and work in the UK, and the question is, once the UK has left the EU, whether this will also apply to EU citizens. Theresa May is not willing to give any guarantees.

If an EU citizen has lived for five years in another EU country, they are currently automatically entitled to the permanent right of residence in that new country – this is also still the case in the UK. Many people believe that those who have been granted the right to permanent residence by the time Britain leaves the EU will not be affected by the new restrictions.

A desire to limit immigration

The British government has made it clear that they want to restrict immigration from the EU. Anne Glover doesn’t believe that any exceptions will be made for researchers and the highly-educated.

She also points to the fact that previous initiatives involving special visas to allow highly-educated people from non-EU countries to come and work in the UK did not result in many applications. It was a complicated process and she also believes that the UK’s image has been tarnished by the current scepticism permeating the immigration debate.

“Why would anyone want to go and work in a country where foreigners are not welcome?”

Read more in Curie:

How Brexit won

Text: Anja Castensson
Photo: University of Cambridge