Research Funding in a Post-Brexit World

Adrian Farrel's picture

Whatever your view of the outcome of the referendum, you probably agree that the campaigns were threaded through with misinformation and confusion. We might hope that we are past that point, but as the debate about how we will negotiate the UK's exit from the European Union (EU) develops we are being exposed to more and distractions and disingenuous public statements.

A considerable amount of research funding comes to the UK from the EU through the Horizon 2020 (H2020) scheme [1]. This programme is providing over 80 billion Euros in grants over the period 2014 to 2020 and is envisioned as a means to drive economic growth and create jobs within the EU's member nations. The stated aim is to ensure Europe produces world-class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.

The chief beneficiaries of H2020 grants are research institutions (universities and independent research organisations) and the R&D arms of large companies [2], however there is a goal that 20% of the monies will go to small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Funding under H2020 is granted to projects each operated by a consortium of companies and organisations. A consortium puts together a detailed proposal describing what work they will do, what the outcomes will be, and how grant money would be spent. The proposals are assessed for the European Commission (EC) by panels of experts who determine the technical merit and value for money as well as considering the social and economic impact of the research. Other considerations also play a small part, such as the participation by SMEs, equality issues, and distribution of work across all EU countries. Competition is stiff, and many proposals are turned down.

Obviously (?) one objective of H2020 funding is to spend the money in the EU and develop new science and industry for the benefit of EU citizens. Thus, consortium members are primarily expected to be from member states. However, non-EU companies can receive funding if they have R&D offices within the EU where the work will be done, and wholly non-EU companies can form part of a consortium if they are willing to do the work without receiving a grant and if their presence will add significantly to the success of the project.

A few non-member nations have received special treatment. For example, funding has been available for Swiss organisations under some circumstances [3], but since the Swiss government adopted and initiative against mass immigration that effectively limited freedom of movement for EU citizens, the access to H2020 funding has been limited [4]. While the EC will continue to pay for participation in projects that have already started or that been agreed, participation in future projects will not necessarily receive grants.

The Swiss government has acted to reduce the impact of these changes by pledging to support Swiss organisations participating in future H2020 projects through the Swiss State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation (SERI). [5]

Post Brexit, the UK will, of course, not be an EU member state. It also seems quite likely that Brexit will mean the imposition of restrictions on freedom of movement for citizens of EU countries, and so it is not unreasonable to assume that the EC will limit the availability of H2020 grants to UK companies and research bodies.

If the EC follows the Swiss model we will see payments continue for all running projects and all those that have been agreed at the moment of Brexit. But the Swiss change in migration rules was relatively immediate: the UK's exit from Europe could drag on until late 2019 [6] and so confusion about the effects on research funding is likely to persist.

In view of the strong competition for H2020 grants, project participants are asking themselves reasonable questions. Do they want to be part of a project lead by a UK organisation? Do they want to risk being part of a consortium with a partner that might have to withdraw before the end of the project, curtailing their research and reducing the value of the project? How will the EC and its experts assess project proposals that depend on involvement by UK participants?

Fortunately, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has stepped in to remove the confusion: or has he? In a piece of classic future tense reporting, The Guardian suggested that Hammond would "guarantee billions of pounds of UK government investment after Brexit for projects currently funded by the EU." [7] The paper further stated that the "Treasury is expected to continue its funding beyond the UK’s departure from the EU for all structural and investment fund projects, as long as they are agreed before the autumn statement. If a project obtains EU funding after that, an assessment process by the Treasury will determine whether funding should be guaranteed by the UK government post-Brexit."

So, what does this really mean? Well, the Autumn Statement normally shows up some time between the end of October and the start of December [8], so we are only talking about a relatively small number of new projects. If we assume that the EC will apply the Swiss model then they would continue to fund all projects that are currently running and would, in fact, support projects that are agreed before Article 50 is invoked, and that does not seem to be planned until after the turn of the year.

So it doesn't look like the Chancellor has promised anything of value.

Furthermore, this hasn't helped researchers plan for the future. Can they participate in projects that are only currently at the planning stage? How should their research partners in Europe react to UK involvement in project proposals? How will funding for H2020 projects be allocated in the years that follow?

These are similar questions to those raised by Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society [9]. He notes that "some researchers have already missed out on collaborative projects because European colleagues were worried about funding," and he asks that "any grants that are awarded while we are still in the EU should be allowed to complete." [10]

It is possible that the UK government will increase domestic research budgets, utilising some of the money saved from contributions to the EU budget (assuming this has not already been over-committed to pay for other things, such as the NHS). But finance is not the only essential for successful research: cooperation is equally important. What will the Government do to facilitate joint projects with researchers in neighbouring countries?

I believe that well-funded and well-focused research is essential to the development of the UK's economy and to the progress of technology on which we should be building our society. Bristol, the UK's most advanced "smart city" has drawn on research funding from business, UK Government, and the EU. Through cooperative projects it has pulled in ideas and knowledge from across Europe, and it is now a recognised leader in the field. If we are to turn this sort of example into real advances for business and for people's living conditions then we need the Government to make more detailed and meaningful statements about how UK research funding and cooperation will be arranged in the years leading up to and after Brexit.