On 31 January, the United Kingdom formally left the EU. What the future research collaboration with the EU countries will be like will be determined by the association agreement, which is planned to come into force in January 2021.

Safeguarding collaboration with the United Kingdom

Svenska 2020-02-11

If the United Kingdom leaves the EU’s research collaboration, new initiatives will be needed to safeguard exchanges between Swedish and British researchers. This is the view of several experts. For Astrid von Mentzer, who is doing her post doc in Cambridge, decisions made in the near future will be of great importance.

When Curie contacts Astrid von Mentzer by telephone, she and the family are in the middle of packing. In just a few days they are all moving from Gothenburg to Cambridge, where she will be doing research at the Sanger Institute during her post doc visit.

“I have wanted to join this research team ever since I received my doctorate three years ago.”

Astrid von Mentzer says that she cheered when she got the place, and that she more-or-less stuck her head in the sand throughout the Brexit mess.

“To begin with, I tried to keep up and understand how it would affect me, but it became too complicated, with all the twists and turns. Now I am just trying to accept that I am in the middle of all this, and can’t do very much about it.”

Threatening a no-deal exit

On 31 January, the United Kingdom formally left the EU. The country will however continue to be covered by the EU’s rules during a transition period.

What the future research collaboration between the United Kingdom and the EU countries will be like will be determined by the association agreement, which is planned to come into force in January 2021. If there is no agreement in place by then, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, is threatening a no-deal exit.

“I think that the risk of a no-deal or hard Brexit is smaller now than previously, but we don’t yet know how things will turn out,” says Lisa Almsjö, Senior Policy Officer at Sweden’s Research and Innovation Office in Brussels, which is run jointly by Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council.

For Astrid von Mentzer and her family, Brexit is a particularly hot topic, but the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU can also have major consequences for researchers staying in Sweden. If the United Kingdom does not just leave the union, but also the EU’s research collaboration, this will be a major set-back, Lisa Almesjö thinks.

“It hardly bears thinking about. The United Kingdom is an important collaboration partner for Swedish researchers, and a major research nation.”

Uncertainty has the greatest impact

Right now, she thinks that it is uncertainty that is having the greatest impact on Swedish researchers.

“They don’t know whether to risk starting a collaboration with British researchers, as they don’t know what the prerequisites will be. The entire process surrounding Brexit has been messy, with all the twists and turns in the British Parliament. Exit dates have been set, and then delayed. There has been lots of to-ing and fro-ing – and this has affected researchers,” she says, and adds that new questions are waiting in the wings.

At the end of the year, the EU’s current research programme, Horizon 2020, will be succeeded by Horizon Europe. The first applications to the new research programme must be submitted by the end of the year, that is before the association agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom is planned to be signed.

“The question is what to do about this as a researcher. Will they dare to seek funding together with British researchers? They will need notice in good time before the application deadline,” says Lisa Almesjö.

Action plan at Lund University

If the United Kingdom ends up outside Horizon Europe, this will place great demands on universities and researchers to find new ways to collaborate outside the EU. Several experts that Curie has spoken to confirm this.

Lund University started early and developed an action plan for how collaboration with British universities would be strengthened in the event of Brexit. The plan was published in January 2019.

“We wanted to underline that we care about our collaborations with the United Kingdom, and are making sure that we can manage these changes. The United Kingdom is an incredibly important partner for us, within both research and teaching, so of course we are very worried,” says Sylvia Schwaag Serger, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Lund University.

The importance of maintaining a functioning relationship with British universities cannot be overstated, she thinks. When it comes to co-publications, the United Kingdom shares second place with Germany, after USA, which is the most important partner for Lund researchers. The United Kingdom is also the most desired exchange destination for the university’s students.

Need global collaboration

In a broader perspective, the work on safeguarding collaboration with British universities is about enabling international collaboration within the research community, Sylvia Schwaag Seger considers:

“We need global collaboration in order to deliver the best research and to provide answers to the major challenges of our times, such as the climate threat, global security issues and an ageing population. British universities are at the leading edge in many areas, and are important for global knowledge development.”

She also highlights the United Kingdom’s importance as an advocate for excellence as the prime criterion in the EU’s research initiatives.

“With Brexit, the voice and importance of the United Kingdom will disappear, or at least be weakened, in European forums for research funding. This is something that we take very seriously,” she says.

New initiatives may be needed

Sylvia Schwaag Serger emphasises the consequences of Brexit, but at the same time does not want to be alarmist. Irrespective of what the agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU will look like, she is convinced that Swedish universities will continue to have strong ties to British universities in the future too.

“It is not the case that everything stops just because the United Kingdom leaves the EU, but right now an important source of funding is unsecured, and that is serious,” she says.

As she sees it, it is important to strengthen strategic collaboration at university level, and to enter into exchange agreements for researchers and students. Lund University has already contacted its most important British collaboration partners, and the same applies for several other Swedish universities.

Sylvia Schwaag Serger also wants to see more discussion abut possible financial initiatives, if it turns out that Swedish and British researchers can no longer apply for EU funding together.

“We have not quite landed yet, but as a university we could envisage targeted initiatives for collaborations with British universities, if they turn out to be needed.” The Government and research funding bodies should also consider whether any special measures are needed to support research collaboration with the United Kingdom.

Wants to invite British researchers to Sweden

During the Brexit process, reports have emerged that certain researchers are choosing to move away from the United Kingdom to facilitate collaboration with their partners in the EU. There are no statistics showing how many researchers have left the United Kingdom or are considering doing so due to Brexit, but both Sylvia Schwaag Serger and Lisa Almesjö know of such cases.

Sylvia Schwaag Serger thinks that Sweden at national level should welcome researchers who choose to move.

“We are seeing that some EU countries have already positioned themselves as welcoming and, as I see it, we are always in need of good researchers.”

Lisa Almesjö has difficulty seeing how such an initiative could be taken at national level.

“It isn’t up to the Government to tell the universities what to do; instead, here it would have to come from the universities themselves. British researchers have a good reputation internationally, so I think that there are many who would want to recruit them.”

Living in Cambridge with her family

Back to Astrid von Mentzer, who has been living in Cambridge with her family since the end of December. In her research, she is studying a particular E. coli bacterium that causes diarrhoea. To advance and achieve results, international collaboration is completely central, she thinks.

Through her postdoc stay at the Sanger Institute, she has the opportunity to learn more about bioinformatics and to use technology that is not available at Chalmers University of Technology or the University of Gothenburg. Well-functioning international collaboration is also important to enable gathering together the foremost expertise on a certain research issue, she explains.

“My goal is to form my own research team and to collaborate closely with international experts. This will definitely be more difficult if we aren’t able to apply for EU funding,” she says.

Just now she is keeping her fingers crossed that the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU will not cause any great surprises, and that she can remain in the UK throughout her postdoc period.

“I’m not particularly worried for myself really, but if it should turn out that the family can’t stay, then that will be hard,” she says.

Text: Charlie Olofsson
Photo: Nina Ransmyr, Malin Arnesson, Håkan Röjder