UK’s position paper on post-Brexit science aims for ‘impossible’

Aim for UK-EU research agreement ignores ‘decisive’ role of immigration system, argues Leru secretary general

September 7, 2017
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The UK government’s “wishful thinking” in its Brexit position paper on science includes goals “impossible under current European Union law”, while ignoring the fact that immigration policy will be “absolutely decisive” for British research, according to a senior sector figure on the Continent.

The paper, published by the UK government on 6 September, says that the UK “will seek to agree a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU that establishes a framework for future collaboration”, across the EU’s research funding programmes as well as areas such as defence and space research.

The department highlights the many benefits to the UK from European research collaboration and appears to endorse the aim of seeking associated country status in future EU research programmes – which allows non-EU member states to participate – although it stops short of stating outright that this is the UK’s goal.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that the paper should be read “next to what was leaked”, referring to a draft Home Office document first reported by The Guardian. The document states that the UK will end the free movement of labour after Brexit, with those in highly skilled professions – likely to include researchers – granted work permits for three to five years. It also sets an aim for “some restrictions” on EU students, such as checks on their “academic ability, English language skills and sufficiency of funds”.

The “whole migration policy will be absolutely decisive for what is possible on research”, said Professor Deketelaere. He added: “If I’m a top researcher with a huge status and I read what is in The Guardian about this document, I would say ‘this [the UK] is the last country I’m going to go to’.”

Professor Deketelaere said that the paper maintained near “silence” on the highly prestigious European Research Council, which he attributed to the fact that ERC grant holders are required to spend at least 50 per cent of their working time in an EU member state or associated country, with a substantial proportion of the UK’s ERC grant holders being non-UK nationals.

“They [the UK] know if they start talking about that, they will be confronted with the problems that residence brings about,” opening up the issue of the immigration regime’s determining influence on the future of UK research, he argued.

The UK government paper mixed “wishful thinking, window dressing” and things “impossible under current EU law”, he continued.

If the UK were to become an associated country in the next EU framework programme, that would “mean that association criteria will have to be changed. Because under the present rules of association to the framework programme, either you [have to be] a candidate member state, or you are an European Free Trade Association (Efta) country, or you are a neighbourhood policy country.”

However, as Times Higher Education has reported, the European Commission is said to be considering opening association to the next framework programme to nations such as Canada and Australia, which could offer the UK a solution.

Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that, given the UK government approach of “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit, “this is actually quite clear that they see benefits to be had from continuing to be associated” to framework programmes.

And it was “a good thing” that the paper sets no figure on possible contributions that the UK will pay to be associated to framework programmes, he added. “I personally read this as saying, ‘we want to be in and we’ll see what it costs’. It is not saying, ‘we’ll limit this to a billion [pounds] a year’,” said Dr Jorgensen.

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