A merry post-Brexit research collaboration between the UK and the EU

Science depends on international collaboration to prosper. This statement may not surprise you, but it was only in October of this year that a paper in Nature rigorously proved the connection (Jonkers y Wagner 2017). The authors showed that an increase in government investment in research, science and innovation (RSI hereafter) correlates with the number of publications by scientists in that country. Interestingly,  an increase in government investment in RSI does not correlate with scientific impact of publications, measured by the number of citations of these papers. Instead the authors found that the country´s ‘openness’, quantified by metrics relating international co-authorships and mobility of researchers, is the key factor that increases the impact of scientific results. This is one significant reason why the UK and the EU should maintain their research collaboration after Brexit.

There is no turning back on Brexit. It is now the time for the teams of David Davis (UK) and Michel Barnier (EU) to reach the best agreement for both sides. The negotiations are still in the first stage, dealing only with the divorce conditions in three vital areas: the exit bill, citizen´s rights and the Irish frontier. Once sufficient progress on these issues has been made, the future ties will begin to be treated, including whether the UK will participate in the R&I framework programs of the EU. Unlike other areas of discussion, both sides agree and are hopeful for a fruitful future of collaboration in science research between the UK and the EU.

Indeed, it was first the UK’s Department for Exiting the EU who pronounced their ambition of not only maintaining, but fostering collaboration. In an article published last September, they remarked upon the strong tradition of collaboration between the UK and the EU, and proposed seeking a far-reaching RSI agreement constructed from the present EU agreement. The reply from the EU came from Carlos Moedas, comissioner of the EU for RSI, who in his speech at Edinburgh in October acknowledged his optimism for the UK to continue participating in the EU R&I framework programs. As he remarked, science is and will always be one of our strongest common values.

This strong consensus reflects the benefits both parties receive from the current colloboration. On the one hand, the UK has undoubtedly been one of the main beneficiaries of the European Research Area. Their recovery of money in grants and research projects from Horizon 2020, the current R&I framework program of the UE, is higher than what they previously invested. This only happens for a handful of countries belonging to the EU. The UK also benefits in its univeristies’ international  leadership, which is strenghen by attracting talented european academics and students. On the other hand, the EU also benefits from a close relationship with the UK, as recognized by the report of last July from the independent High Level Group of the European Comission, which was chaired by Pascal Lamy. The UK has one of the most powerful science bases of all European countries, and its participation in collaborative RSI projects will foster their excellence and also the prestige of the EU. It is a clear win-to-win situation for both the UK and the EU.

Having acknowledged the mutual benefits, the next step is solving the technicalities of future collaboration. Currently the UK, as member of the EU, takes part in Horizon 2020, the eighth R&I framework program of the EU with a total budged of €80 billion from 2014 to 2020. The Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson ensured last July that all the projects successfully submitted by UK participants before the EU exit will be underwritten by the UK, giving some reassurance to scientists. The next issue is to consider the role of the UK in the subsequent framework program, which is already been constructed. Carlos Moedas pointed out an ambition to go beyond Horizon 2020 in terms of investment, collaboration and support.  The most reasonable position for the UK would be to adopt an associated status, similar to 16 non-EU countries like Switzerland or Norway currently taking part in Horizon 2020. It allows access to the opportunities of the program without the right of formal voting, although they take part in meetings and can influence some decisions. An original improved associated status giving more rights to UK will be also considered in the negotiations.

There is also good news for the national research system of UK. Seeking a decrease in the uncertainty caused by Brexit, the Government published a soothing report of their industrial strategy last January. In it they recognized the importance of international collaboration and partnership with Europe, which was reiterated in the speeches of the Prime Minister at Lancaster House and Florence during 2017. In the report the government promised a total investment in R&D of £4.7 billion, increasing by £2 billion the current amount until 2020/2021. This will allow the UK to reach the 2.4% investment of the GDP in R&D by 2027, and to achieve a 3% investment in the long term. The UK is currently below the EU average expenditure and far from countries such as Sweden or Germany, who invest around 3% of their GDP.

Taking everything into consideration, it is clear that the effect of Brexit upon scientific collaboration between the UK and the EU will be lower than what was initially feared. The positive declarations from both sides during the last months point towards an agreement which not only maintains but expands the collaboration that is currently in place. Science, once again, stands out as a global instrument to keep cooperation between nations when other channels fail.

Acknowledgements: the author would like to thank Juan Duarte (Political Counsellor), Lorenzo Melchor (‎International Scientific Coordinator) and Cristina de Cárdenas, all from the Embassy of Spain in the UK, for their valuable support and information to write this article.

References

Department for Exiting the European Union. 6 September 2017. “Collaboration on science and innovation: a future partnership paper.”

Government, HM. January 2017. “Building our Industrial Strategy.”

High Level Group of the European Comission. July 2017. “LAB – FAB – APP — Investing in the European future we want.”

HM Government. January 2017. “Building our Industrial Strategy.”

Johnson, Jo. 19 July 2017. “Speech at Instruct European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERIC) inaugural event.”

Jonkers, Caroline S., and Koen Wagner. 2017. “Open countries have strong science.” Nature 32-33.

Moedas, Manuel. 16 October 2017. “Speech at the MacCormick Lecture.” Royal Society of Edinburgh.

 

Sergio Perez is studying for a PhD in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London as a President’s PhD Scholar, and a trainee in scientific diplomacy at the Embassy of Spain in the UK

Banner Image: EU flag, Yanni Koutsomitis / Flickr

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