European Research Council cash in jeopardy under ‘no-deal’ Brexit

UK government guidance highlights EU programmes where ‘third country’ participation is not permitted

August 23, 2018
Source: iStock

European Research Council grants promised to UK-based researchers could be jeopardised in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, the UK government has warned.

Guidance on what would happen to funding allocated under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 scheme if the UK crashes out of the bloc without striking a deal on its future relationship says that funding guarantees issued by the Westminster administration mean that UK-based researchers should still be able to take part in most programmes as “third country” participants.

However, third country participation is not permitted under some Horizon 2020 calls, according to the guidance, published by the Department for Exiting the European Union.

This includes European Research Council grants – typically seen as the most prestigious funding stream – and some Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, which support academic exchanges.

Under the predecessor scheme to Horizon 2020, the UK secured €1.7 billion (£1.5 billion) of ERC funding between 2007 and 2013, and €1.1 billion under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie initiative – far more than any other EU country.

“The government is considering what other measures may be necessary to support UK research and innovation in the event that the guarantee and the extension are required,” the guidance says.

Earlier this summer, the Treasury announced that it would guarantee funding until the end of the decade for research projects that had secured European funding, even in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit.

However, the new guidance highlights that these guarantees only cover funding for UK participants, not European consortium partners.

“We are aware of some cases where UK participants lead a consortium and are responsible for distributing funding to the other participants; the UK government is seeking to discuss how this could best be addressed in a ‘no-deal’ scenario with the European Commission,” the guidance says. “These discussions would also need to include consideration of projects where the UK’s change in status from member state to third country could lead to concerns about ongoing compliance with Horizon 2020 rules (for example, where a consortium no longer meets the threshold for member state and/or associated country participants).”

The Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s biggest biomedical research institute, based in London, warned that the loss of its ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie would leave it about £6 million out of pocket every year.

Sam Barrell, the Crick’s chief operating officer, warned that failing to reach a “sensible” agreement with the EU “could seriously damage our ability to work with key EU partners and, as a result, harm the quality of UK science and our position on the world stage”.

“A ‘no-deal’ Brexit would undoubtedly be bad for science; the only real question is how bad. We should not underestimate the value of the UK’s strong international position in science, and the potential impact of failing to reach a deal,” Dr Barrell said.

Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy at the Wellcome Trust, described the guidance as “a step in the right direction to reducing risks”, but warned that “even with the best preparation a ‘no deal’ will be damaging for research and science”.

But Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said that his assessments of future ERC funding arrangements “don’t start with the assumption of a disaster”.

“At an overall UK level, even if we get no more money at all from post-Brexit EU programmes, recent increases in [UK Research and Innovation] funding means there will be more research funding in the UK than there was on the day of the referendum,” Professor Reid said.

“But there are concentrations of EU funding in specific disciplines – archaeology, law, economics and software engineering, for example – and these would be damaged badly if EU funding ends with no compensation from UK sources. 

“I have said before that, if the UK research base is like a piece of Cheddar, then Brexit could turn it into Swiss cheese – solid overall but with holes punched through it in unpredictable places. This is true of all EU programmes, including [the] ERC.”

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