UK universities have been told that they must convince the Treasury of the “value for money” gained from European Union research funding to ensure the nation is in the bloc’s next framework programme, given that an annual payment of more than €1 billion (£876 million) could be required to maintain current funding levels.
Senior sector figures also believe that, with the EU wanting a “framework agreement” for the future relationship with the UK to be agreed in October, it is the progress of these wider negotiations that will dictate whether talks on the UK’s potential association to Horizon Europe – the EU’s next research programme, starting in 2021 – are able to proceed.
Being part of the EU’s research programmes means that UK-based academics are eligible for prestigious European Research Council grants and can also join international research consortia funded by the programmes.
But Brexit advocates in the Conservative Party and right-wing media may raise concerns about any continued payments to the EU.
Damian Hinds, education secretary in the Westminster government, speaking last week in the House of Commons, backed up previous statements by universities and science minister Sam Gyimah that the UK would not pay “any price” for UK association to Horizon Europe.
“We have to look at this and consider value for money,” said Mr Hinds. Mr Gyimah was “absolutely right to say ‘not at any price’”, he added.
In a speech on 21 May, Theresa May went further than her previous statements when she said: “The UK would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes, including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&D.”
She added: “Of course, such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with that contribution and the benefits we bring.
“The UK is ready to discuss these details with the commission as soon as possible.”
To become associated countries in the current research programme, Horizon 2020, non-EU member nations had to pay a fee calculated on the basis of their gross domestic product. Whether that system would continue to apply to Horizon Europe has yet to be confirmed.
Some indication of the size of a UK fee may be offered by a 2015 report by the Royal Society, which cited Office for National Statistics figures for the UK’s investment in EU research. Although as a member state the UK did not make distinct payments into the research programme, the Royal Society said that ONS indicative annual figures for the UK’s contribution to EU research and development produced a figure of €5.4 billion over the period of Framework Programme 7, the last complete EU research programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013. The UK received €8.8 billion in funding over this period, the Royal Society said, citing EU figures.
While these figures suggest that the UK has been a significant net beneficiary from EU research funding, that is unlikely to be the case post-Brexit.
The European Parliament said in March that any UK association to Horizon Europe can only come “without permitting net transfer from the EU budget to the UK, nor any decision-making role for the UK”.
If the UK cannot be a net beneficiary, then it would face a payment to the EU of about €1.26 billion a year to maintain the level of annual funding that it received in FP7.
Some in the UK suggest that an annual fee of between €1 billion and €2 billion would be required.
One vice-chancellor said that the question is whether the UK government feels that it would be “getting value for money out of that, as with all public expenditure. The Treasury will want to know, ‘what do we get out of this?’”
Universities would have to find “some way of showing the value of the [EU-funded] research to the economy”, the vice-chancellor added.
There are suggestions that David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, has indicated in private that a “voluntary contribution” to EU research would not be a problem as long as the UK would receive “value for money” in return for its investment.
The EU previously tied Switzerland’s status as an associated country to freedom of movement – suspending the nation from the research programme after a referendum backed immigration restrictions. There is no clarity as yet as to whether the EU will seek to use its research programme as a lever on wider political issues when it comes to Brexit.
Michael Arthur, the UCL president, who leads for the Russell Group on Brexit, said that the government said “research is part of that framework agreement” on the future UK-EU relationship scheduled to be agreed in October.
And “a lot of the detailed work” on a research deal would happen “during that next period [following an October deal], it’s my understanding”, Professor Arthur said. “Questions like ‘how much will it cost’ and ‘what will the actual arrangements be’ – that detail won’t be in the framework agreement, but it will be worked on if the framework agreement goes ahead.”
Ms May’s “as soon as possible” comment could increase the chances of an early deal on research, separate from the wider talks. But it remains to be seen how her comments about using a UK payment to ensure that it can help shape the next research programme – not normally allowed for associated countries – will be received in Brussels.