On 14th June 2016, just over a week before the EU referendum, an open letter, signed by thirteen Vote Leave ministers, was published to calm the fears of British scientists, farmers and others who relied on European funds. It pledged: “If the public votes to leave on 23rd June, we will continue to fund EU programmes in the UK until 2020.” One of the thirteen signatories was Dominic Raab.
However, Scientists were quick to point out the irony of one of the first things Dominic Raab did as the newly-appointed Brexit Secretary. On 21st July 2018, he suggested that the UK might not honour the hard-wrangled withdrawal agreement that guarantees continued funding of EU programmes until 2020.
On 15th January 2019, Parliament roundly rejected May’s deal with the European Union, which lays out the terms for an orderly withdrawal. This historic defeat for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May makes the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal more likely.
On Tuesday 5th February, the Campaign for Science and Enginerring, CaSE, published its evidence to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee inquiry into the implications of a no-deal Brexit for science and engineering.
To date, the UK has secured over €5.1bn of EU Horizon 2020 funding since the inception of the programme in 2014, the second largest recipient of funding.
A no-deal Brexit would mean UK institutions would no longer be eligible for three Horizon 2020 funding lines: European Research Council (ERC) grants, Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA), and SME instrument (SMEi) grants for small innovative businesses.
This would be a huge blow for UK science and innovation. The campaign group ‘Scientists for EU’ calculated that these streams equate to 45% of the UK’s receipts to date from Horizon 2020. That is to say a no-deal Brexit will cost UK research €577.35m (£520.7m) a year in lost opportunity to access these golden grants.
By far the most critical of those funding lines is the ERC. The ERC typically awards grants of €1-2m to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries. for the very best, creative researchers from anywhere in the world to undertake pioneering research in EU and associated countries, and to build a team around them.
Although the ERC awards are just over ten years old, recipients have won six Nobel prizes, four Fields medals and five Wolf prizes. One in 14 publications from ERC projects rank in the top 1% most cited worldwide.
Imperial is one of Europe’s top recipients of funding, hosting 97 ERC grants so far. As recently as December, three Imperial academics won around €6 million (£5.3m) between them to further their research in materials, biomedicine and computing respectively in the ERC’s latest wave of Consolidator Grants funding, second out of UK institutions.
Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise) Professor Nick Jennings said: “These grants are highly sought after and Imperial is consistently one of the top recipients in Europe. These projects demonstrate our ambitions to collaborate and work even closer with partners in Europe.
That is why we are supporting and encouraging colleagues to keep applying for new European grants, as we campaign for continued access to European research programmes after Brexit.”
The government has pledged that in the event of a no deal, grant funding awarded to UK institutions would be underwritten to make up for the loss of EU funding.
However, as mentioned in CaSE’s statement, the Government has yet to detail the administrative mechanisms in place to administer the guarantee if it becomes necessary. It has also yet to confirm that the money for the underwrite will be new money and not taken from existing research budgets.
Mike Galsworthy, co-founder and director of Scientists for EU, writes in his article for The Guardian that “even if the UK government were to compensate our research community for the financial loss of ERC grants, it would take far longer than the few months left until Brexit Day to build a fund as prestigious and attractive to global talent as the ERC”.
In an open letter published on 4th January, over 150 UK universities have warned the Government that leaving the EU without a deal is “one of the biggest threats” the institutions have ever faced. They have urged the Government to commit to replacing these EU sources of funding to UK researchers in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
However, a few days later, 15 notable academics, co-wrote a letter in The Guardian criticising what they view as the scaremongering of certain higher education bodies, including the Russell Group, about the effects of Brexit.
They believe, with a clean sovereign Brexit, British universities can still have success with EU funding, like other successful third-party countries (Israel, Norway and Switzerland, for example), and will doubtlessly continue to participate in EU programmes like Horizon 2020 at will.
In response to Brexit, Imperial College London has already introduced a new funding scheme to encourage continued collaboration with Europe after the split.
Imperial is also campaigning for the UK government to guarantee scientific mobility through automatic visas for winners of major research grants, such as Horizon 2020 or UKRI. Imperial is also calling for an expansion and streamlining of Tier 1 visas for highly skilled staff.
Speaking to Naturem, following Imperial’s launch of a strategic partnership in education, research and innovation with the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in October 2018, Vice President (International) Professor Dallman said: “We’re naturally interested in any mechanism that allows us to continue fruitful collaborations we have established with European partners over the decades”.
A survey of around 1,000 staff at the Francis Crick Institute, which Imperial is a founding partner of, showed that an overwhelming majority, 97%, of those who responded said a no-deal Brexit would be bad for UK science.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on 29th March, but a deal on the terms of its departure is yet to be fully agreed.