The UK suffered a sharp drop in the value of European Union research and innovation projects that it started coordinating in the year after the Brexit referendum, suggesting that uncertainty caused by the vote has severely damaged Britain’s academic leadership in Europe.
It led €916 million (£805 million) worth of Horizon 2020 projects that started in 2017, a fall of close to half a billion euros compared with 2016, according to a Times Higher Education analysis of EU data.
British teams coordinated projects that amounted to 12.6 per cent of all funding in 2017, down from 16.9 per cent the previous year – the lowest share since Horizon 2020 has been fully operational.
Germany’s share increased, overtaking the UK for the first time, while France and the Netherlands also saw their shares grow.
Mike Galsworthy, programme director for the campaigning group Scientists for EU, said that the figures were the first quantitative evidence that uncertainty over Brexit had hit UK universities’ participation in EU projects. They confirmed anecdotal evidence that emerged after the June 2016 vote that UK researchers were losing out on coordinating roles, he added.
The “continuing uncertainty” over the UK’s future in EU research frameworks meant that while the UK was “still OK for short-term participation” it was “more questionable for long-term leadership roles”, he said.
Shortly after the vote, there were reports of UK teams on Horizon 2020 grant bids offering not to coordinate projects, in case uncertainty over Brexit put the application at risk.
Coordinating projects rather than simply participating in them can help countries bring in European money: figures released by the European Commission in October showed that 44 per cent of Horizon 2020 funding had so far gone to project leaders.
Sliding value: Germany overtakes UK for first time on share of coordinated projects
Share of total value of Horizon 2020 projects coordinated
Source: THE analysis of European Commission data
Managing projects also means that countries are more likely to keep any resulting intellectual property, win lead author positions on subsequent papers, and engage local businesses in the research, Dr Galsworthy has argued.
He warned shortly before the referendum that the UK’s ability to lead projects might be particularly badly hit in the event of a vote to leave. Giving evidence to the House of Lords, he pointed to the example of Switzerland, which was downgraded to a “partial” Horizon 2020 associated country in 2014 after a dispute with the EU over freedom of movement.
Following this, Swiss participation dropped by nearly half – but coordination fell by more than 90 per cent, highlighting the disproportionate hit to leadership roles causes by uncertainty. Switzerland was fully readmitted in 2016 after agreeing not to impose quotas on immigration.
A European Commission spokeswoman urged “caution” when analysing current statistics for evidence of a Brexit effect. “Different Horizon 2020 calls are launched each year, leading to fluctuations in participation statistics,” she said. “Meaningful trends are sometimes difficult to detect and comparing like with like is not easy.”
Brussels has repeatedly stressed that while the UK remains part of the EU, researchers in Britain have the same rights to apply as before. “While the Commission does not play any role in deciding who applies for funding and who coordinates projects, we are committed to fair and unbiased treatment of all applications,” the spokeswoman said. The UK government has also said that it will guarantee Horizon 2020 funding won by UK-based researchers beyond Brexit.
With London and Brussels agreeing an initial deal over citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s exit payments earlier this month, attention has turned to the second round of Brexit talks and whether they will pave the ways for the UK to join Horizon 2020’s successor programme, set to start in 2021, as an associated country.
Thomas Jørgensen, a senior policy coordinator focused on Brexit at the European Universities Association, said that “frankly, I don’t think there is political resistance” to such an arrangement. On a technical level, continuing research links would be “relatively easy”, he said.
On the other hand, it was a “worry” that the two sides would run out of time to include research in the deal to be signed before the UK leaves, he said, when so many other issues had to be discussed.
Others have questioned whether the EU will allow the UK to join as an associated member if it did not allow freedom of movement – the issue over which Switzerland’s participation was downgraded in 2014 – although there have been some signs that the EU may be preparing to relax requirements for associated countries.