The prime minister probably surprised, and pleased, many in UK academia today by explicitly name-checking research and universities in her long-awaited Brexit speech.
“One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation,” said Theresa May. “So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.”
This sounds like a hint that the government might try to remain part of future European research framework programmes like the current €80 billion Horizon 2020, the future of which has been uncertain since last June’s referendum. So is it a realistic hope that the UK may be able to maintain the status quo in this vital area for academics and universities?
In terms of the amount of money the UK receives, it seems highly unlikely. The UK does very well out of the European Union’s research system, which is on the whole competitive, because of the quality of its academics. Although overall the UK sends more money to Brussels than it directly gets back, the opposite is true for research.
According to calculations by the Royal Society, between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU for research, development and innovation, but paid just €5.4 billion into EU coffers for these activities.
As was argued before the referendum, why on earth would the EU allow the UK to continue with such a sweet deal if the country opts for what has been termed a hard Brexit? The flow of money into the country for research would no longer be offset by big overall budget payments to Brussels, as May made clear in her speech. Instead she wants to make specific payments to participate in certain EU programmes, so it seems likely that these arrangements will have to make sense for the EU on their individual terms. On that basis, “I’ll give you €8.8 billion if you give me €5.4 billion” makes no sense from an EU perspective.
It might be that the UK offers to pay more to remain part of the successors to Horizon 2020, so that its involvement is cost neutral to the EU. Even then Brussels may demand other conditions, specifically freedom of movement, that the UK would be loath to accept.
Before the referendum, Brexit supporters pointed to countries like Israel or Turkey, which aren’t in the EU, don’t accept freedom of movement but still get “associated” status, meaning their researchers can apply for Horizon 2020 funding.
But more instructive may be the example of Switzerland, which has only just had access to Horizon 2020 restored after backing down on an attempt to restrict freedom of movement.
Ultimately it may be, as many Brexiteers hope in the economic sphere, that the EU member states seek to maintain as many research ties with the UK as possible so as not to damage their own universities.
But equally, just as Frankfurt and Dublin are eyeing London’s banks, EU countries may see a chance to cream off the UK’s best scientists. The Republic of Ireland has already set aside funds to tempt researchers away from the UK. I also understand that the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is lobbying for extra cash to draw the UK’s academic talent to Germany.
The sense that EU science as a whole benefits from the excellence of UK research, as the fierce competition for grants forces all to raise their game, isn't a figment of Brexiteers' imagination.
But EU member states may also judge that UK academics, starved of prestigious European Research Council grants, will be easy picking for their own universities.