Theresa May’s assurance earlier this week that the UK wants “the option to fully associate” to the European Union’s next research programme is welcome news, but it is imperative that this intention is carried through as quickly as possible.
As Times Higher Education reported recently, the latest figures on UK participation in EU research programmes revealed a continuation of the downward trend that has been established since the 2016 vote to leave the EU. This drop-off is apparent in the UK’s share of both funding and project participation.
While a bit of context is needed, the figures suggest a Brexit effect that we should not ignore.
Given the scale and complexity of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, individual data points should not be overanalysed; fluctuations in success rates are to be expected in an excellence-based funding programme. For example, the UK’s increased success in the recent round of European Research Council advanced grants, compared with the previous year, is not included in the participation figures mentioned above. We would also expect a time lag between the negative impact of the EU referendum and the positive impact of the government’s confirmation in December that the UK will continue to participate in Horizon 2020 until the end of the programme.
Nonetheless, given the significant added value of EU research funding, we should be concerned by any evidence that shows a drop-off in UK involvement, especially if we want to participate beyond 2020. The obvious solution is to provide even more certainty.
The EU referendum has sown seeds of doubt across Europe about UK eligibility for Horizon 2020 funding, and European researchers need constant reminding that they can continue to apply for EU research funding with UK counterparts. Efforts to communicate that the UK is still participating fully in Horizon 2020 must continue unabated through outreach not only by universities themselves, but also by the Foreign Office’s Science and Innovation Network, the British Council and UK Research and Innovation.
The UK will not be able to sign an association agreement for Horizon Europe until the programme has been legislated, probably in late 2020. Given that the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020 and the new framework programme is due to begin the day afterwards, timing is clearly critical if a smooth transition to the new framework programme is to be ensured.
With the legislative proposal for Horizon Europe due to be published in early June, it is vital that UK stakeholders continue to demonstrate that they are committed to playing a constructive role in the development of the programme. Institutions should continue to promote Universities UK’s key messages on ensuring that funding remains firmly tied to excellence and that humanities and social science should not be overlooked. Moreover, the UK is well placed to advise on the implementation and choice of missions in the "global challenges" pillar of Horizon Europe.
In addition, a positive and compelling statement on future UK participation in EU higher education and research and innovation programmes must be included in the UK’s EU withdrawal agreement, to be signed in October. EU-UK negotiations on the technical detail of association should begin now, making it possible for politicians to sign an association agreement as soon as possible after Horizon Europe has been legislated. UK stakeholders must engage positively and proactively with their scientific and political counterparts across EU member states to build support for this positive outcome.
There are good reasons why full UK participation in Horizon Europe is a win-win for the EU and the UK, and we are fortunate that both Theresa May and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier have spoken positively about the benefits of research collaboration. And, unlike for some sectors of the EU economy, mechanisms allowing for the participation of non-EU countries already exist in science and innovation, providing useful precedents to build upon.
Yet we must not be complacent. University leaders, officials and politicians must act now to ensure that the UK continues to play a leading role in European research and education cooperation.
Paul Boyle is vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester.