Rethinking ahead for science and higher education when the UK leaves the EU
A recent debate on the Impact of Brexit on research was held on the 8th May 2017 at the Royal Institution, in London, UK, and organised in collaboration with EuroScience and the Academia Europaea. The debate clearly demonstrated a lack of preparedness of the science community, as a whole, to face the challenges ahead. Meanwhile, the fear of the loss of influence of UK researchers on the European scene was palpable during the discussions.
So what now?
Resolving issues of access to funding and maintaining mobility are two of the most important aspect of the Brexit plans likely to affect the scientific community in Europe. In response to the risk of Brexit adversely impacting European and UK research, this opinion piece invites scientists to make themselves heard so that key issues of access to funding and maintaining current mobility levels within the EU are debated in the coming months. Should all attempt at constructive negotiation fail, it remains to be seen whether the UK plan to strengthen relations and collaborations with the US, the Commonwealth and East-Asia will be an adequate substitute for weakened relations with the EU 27.
Overcoming the initial shock
Looking back on recent events, Brexit came as a shock to almost all scientist and students active in the UK as well as to large parts of British industry. A very large majority of UK scientists and students had voted `Remain´ and very few of them had probably expected that Brexit was to be the outcome. UK collaborations with researchers, universities, research centres and companies from the rest of the European Union (EU) has increased enormously over the last 30 to 40 years.
Staff originating from what will soon be EU-27 territory has flocked to UK universities, and students from those countries form a significant share of the in-itself high number of foreign enrollments at UK universities. Funding from successive Framework Programmes (FP), now Horizon 2020, has become for some a vital fact of life – the UK is the country with the largest number of coordinators of EU-funded projects. So what will come now?
The possible non-participation of the UK in future Framework Programmes (FP) and limitations to the freedom of movement resulting from Brexit could seriously impact on the research endeavour both in the UK and in the remaining EU 27. Many pertinent background data have been collected in a booklet issued on the occasion of the Royal Institution debate and in EuroScientist coverage.
For the UK the issue is not solely the access to EU funds. It is primarily the loss of attractiveness of the UK research system for talented brains and the loss of opportunities for international collaborations which may be difficult to compensate.
For the EU 27, the exclusion of the UK would be a major loss too because it is one of the engines of the European research and innovation system but also because the UK has been very positively influencing the shaping of the FPs and the policies underlying them.
Of course Brexit was not about extricating the UK from the European scientific endeavour. Disenchantment with the EU is in no small measure based on fear mongering from parts of Britain’s political class which has never warmed to the EU and never taken much trouble to explain in a balanced way the benefits of being part of the EU. And stoking of fears of unchecked immigration has been a major trigger for the `Leave´vote.
In addition, one should add right away that Brexit does not bring to an end many important aspects of the integration of the European scientific endeavour. The international research organisations, gathered in EIROForum, such as CERN, EMBL, the European Space Agency (where GALILEO, the European GPS system, will be an issue though), the European Southern Observatory or EIROForum newest member, the European Spallation Source (ESS) under construction in Lund, Sweden, will hardly be affected. They are intergovernmental organisations funded by their member countries.
Furthermore, Britain’s top universities and research centres will remain major global players and the quality of their research and education will continue to attract collaborations with, as well as staff and students from the future EU 27.
Hard data on UK funding from the EU
To pre-empt any further adverse consequences of the Brexit, scientists need to raise their voices. Their future and the future of our societies is at stakes, should we aspire to a thriving open, international science and innovation endeavour.
The issues that scientists need to focus on are multiple. A first example concerns the amount of EU funding flowing to UK research institutions and companies. Under FP7 and Horizon 2020, the UK was a net beneficiary of EU funding for research and innovation. Everyone tells that is because UK science excels. The truth is that the cause is much simpler: the huge rebate PM Thatcher got on the total UK contribution to the EU budget. Without that rebate the UK would be a net contributor to the EU research and innovation budget.
Looking in more detail at the various Horizon 2020 action lines, the really successful programmes for the UK are the ERC, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and the Societal Challenge `Health, Demographic Change and Well-Being´. It does much less well in most other areas.
So who benefits in the UK? In the first place the universities, companies much less: from the funding UK entities received from FP7 universities took 71%, SMEs 13% and other businesses 5%. As a matter of facts, for some universities EU income is a major revenue. The University of Cambridge and University College London in 2015 received each €73 million under Horizon 2020. They are actually the top beneficiaries among all EU universities; Oxford, EPF Lausanne, Technical University of Delft, Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh complete the top-7.
Student mobility conundrum
Foreign students studying in the UK or UK students in the remaining EU 27 countries are anotehr issues requiring further attention. Under the 2014 Call of the EU-funded ERASMUS+ mobility scheme, more than 30,000 students came to the UK–most of them from the EU 27 countries–while 14,800 UK students went to universities in the EU-27 countries. Of UK students studying abroad (~42,500 in 2014) around 45% were in the US and more than 35% in the EU 27.
The number of students at UK universities originating from the EU 27 countries amounts to more than 100,000, but the figure has already been showing a decline in the recent years. EU citizens studying in another EU country are entitled to tuition fees equal to the fees paid by domestic students. Past Brexit, the situation may change dramatically if no agreement on student fees is reached between the UK and the EU 27.
Indeed, in the UK as well as in most EU countries non-EU students pay fees way above those for domestic students. There should be little doubt that erecting effective student fee walls would reduce both the number of UK students enrolling in EU-27 universities and the number of EU-27 students registering at UK universities.
Restricted academic career moves
Among the approximately 200,000 academic staff at UK universities in 2015-16, almost 34% were from EU-27 origin. This internationalisation certainly contributes to the prominence of the UK universities in all rankings. Similar data are not readily available for universities in the other EU-27 countries.
Two things, however, seem to stand out. First, there are many foreign staff members, including UK passport-holders, at EU-27 universities albeit not in the proportion seen at UK universities. Second, a great diversity exists in the EU 27 with respect to the level of internationalisation of universities measured in terms of share of international staff. Shares reaching more than 50% at top-tier Swiss universities or around 35% in the Netherlands but much lower figures in countries such as Germany or France testify to this situation.
The prospect of tighter immigration rules in the UK, the uncertainties for current EU 27 citizens in the UK and the concomitant changes which may apply in future in the EU 27 might well reduce the diversity of the staff working at UK universities and research centres. Diversity in the remaining EU 27 is probably much less at stake.
Plan B, C and D
Past Brexit, the UK may try to conclude an association agreement with the EU to further participate in the FPs. Several countries are currently associated to Horizon 2020. The most relevant examples for the UK are Norway and Switzerland because they too are Western European, highly developed economies. But for these two countries, FP association agreements are tied to the participation in the Single Market, which includes the freedom of movement of people and the subjection to the European Court of Justice.
This is exactly where the UK apparently wants to draw a line in the sand. It remains to be seen whether the UK would be able to conclude with the EU a Framework Programme association agreement under its own premises. In any case, UK association to the FPs would be very expensive. Association arrangements are normally based on the model that a country pays a contribution to the FP budget that is proportional to its GDP divided by the GDP of all EU member states. From net beneficiary of the FP as an EU Member State, the UK would become – by far – a net contributor.
But would the UK have the option to build on the ‘splendid isolation’ theme? Some advance the idea of an off-shore finance paradise. In science, technology and innovation people advance the idea of regurgitating the Commonwealth. Can strengthened relations and collaborations with the US, the Commonwealth and East-Asia substitute for weakened relations with the EU 27? We think this would be part of the illusions some in the UK have about the future relations with the EU. But let’s have an open discussion.
Luc van Dyck, Senior Policy Advisor EuroScience
Peter Tindemans, Secretary General EuroScience