Rethink of EU research membership rules may offer UK ‘solution’

Changes to associate membership criteria could open up European research funding worldwide

August 16, 2017
Flags of European Union member countries
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The redrawing of the criteria for associate membership of the European Commission’s next research framework programme could offer the UK a “solution” for accessing continental grants and collaborations post-Brexit, a sector leader has said.

The reforms are likely to be aimed at expanding the number of countries whose academics are eligible to bid for grants from the successor scheme to Horizon 2020, currently known as Framework Programme 9, although there are no details yet about how the membership criteria could change.

However, the changes could have significant implications as UK negotiators consider the country’s future relationship with the European Union’s research system, which is currently the source of £1.2 billion of annual funding for British universities.

There are now 16 non-EU countries “associated” with Horizon 2020 that contribute funding and subscribe to other requirements – including, in some cases, freedom of movement and accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in disputes – in return for being able to bid for grants and lead research projects.

Previously, only nations attempting to join the EU or those falling within the catchment of the European Neighbourhood Policy, to the east and south of Europe, have become associated members.

But the review of membership criteria has reportedly been triggered by a report requested by the commission, LAB-FAB-APP: Investing in the European Future We Want, which called for framework programmes to be open “to association by the best and participation by all”, based on “reciprocal co-funding or access to funding in the partner country”.

Last month’s report, issued by an independent high-level group of experts chaired by Pascal Lamy, former director general of the World Trade Organisation, named Canada and Australia as “trading partners of a similar level of excellence” that could be invited to participate.

Such a move might reduce the emphasis on subscription to free movement as a requirement and could offer the UK a way to stay in the framework programme without having to accept free movement.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, told Times Higher Education that changing the associated membership criteria “has been mentioned several times by leading persons” within the Commission, including Robert-Jan Smits, director general for research and innovation.

“There aren’t any documents on this yet, but if it goes hand in hand with the adoption of Framework Programme 9, this could be a potential solution for the UK,” he added.

Professor Deketelaere said that the commission has been “hiding” any details on exactly how the association criteria could change “very well”.

He added that Brexit has not sparked the discussion. Instead, proponents argue that changing the criteria could offer a fix for the drop in international collaboration seen during Horizon 2020 compared with its predecessor, Framework Programme 7.

This reduction is largely down to the commission’s changing the funding available to emerging economies hoping to participate in collaborations, such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Ultimately, the UK’s future participation in EU research is likely to be shaped by the progress of Brexit negotiations on broad issues such as trade, as well as by entry criteria.

But Professor Deketelaere added that if changing the criteria encourages other countries that excel in research to join the next framework programme, it will “improve the situation for the EU science” at a time when Brexit threatens it.

It also puts pressure on the UK to remain associated with the scheme. “Through this redefined associate membership, [the UK] also could reinforce its links with other countries worldwide, not only with the EU,” he said.

A commission spokeswoman said that it would respond to the recommendations of LAB-FAB-APP later this year. Details of the successor programme to Horizon 2020 are due to be presented to the commission next year, she added.

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