UK businesses, universities and research centres are amongst the top participants in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 innovation funding programme. How will this be impacted by Brexit?
Dr Caroline Elston-Giroud, European Grants Manager
Unless you have been asleep for the last few days, you will know that the UK is coming to terms with post-Brexit politics. No matter which way you personally voted, or the seemingly hundreds of different issues that people actually interpreted in to their votes, one thing is generally certain – that uncertainty reigns.
Politicians, citizens, businesses, EU neighbours and global on-lookers are all waiting with baited breath to see what will fill the current void and who will bring ideas and stability to the table.
So what about UK Science, Technology and Innovation in all of this?
Britain’s vote to leave the EU has left our scientists and innovators worried about participation in EU funding programmes; from universities, to R&D centres, to business, the UK has been extremely successful in receiving European science funding for over the last twenty years. From 2007 to 2013, the UK was second only to Germany in the amount of EU money received for R&D projects.
Some would go as far as to say that it filled a funding gap left by decreasing National Government funding over the same period.
Since 2014, UK universities have already received over 5 billion Euros of funding according to European Commission data. Our innovative SMEs have been equally successful at winning funding in this hugely competitive environment.
The vote for Brexit understandably creates uncertainty over the future status of UK organisations receiving vital cash for R&D in key areas for all of our futures, from climate change, sustainability and renewable energy, to ageing populations, big data and security.
But what happens next?
For the foreseeable future, it’s business as usual, but UK organisations will need to get ready to adapt quickly.
During the two years of negotiations once Article 50 is triggered, the UK theoretically maintains the current conditions. Until political leaders decide on the UK’s future path, UK stakeholders should be able to participate in European projects. But where will the money come from?
In practice, Brussels and European leaders do not want to make it easy for the UK, and clearly they will be keen to dissuade other EU countries from following suit.
The European Commission has a precedent for this tough approach: in 2014, Switzerland was rapidly kicked out of the EU science and technology funding club when they voted to limit immigration. Over two years later, the Swiss Government is still paying the price and is self-funding the participation of Swiss partners in pan-European technology projects.
Maintaining the UK’s strong scientific position
Whatever the political outcome of the next six to twelve months, it is essential the UK government outlines concrete measures to maintain access to participating in EU-wide science and technology projects. Furthermore, they must take necessary steps to keep the flow of money going to researchers and innovators over the next two years and beyond.
Across Europe, and indeed the world, science, technology and innovation are considered vital indicators of a country’s overall health & prosperity.
The UK is strong in all of these fields, and is a seen as a key player on the global scene; once the dust settles, fundamentally this position should not change, and our politicians should pull out all the stops to maintain it.
We could also come up with some out-of-the-box, home-grown ways of maintaining financial support for science and innovation in the UK. For example, UK companies can currently claim tax credits from the state for their Research & Development activities, but not for their innovation activities; for “hard” science, but not for social or “soft” sciences. Perhaps opening doors to different types of funding or extending the activities that can receive financial support can help to maintain our excellent global position in the future.
Ultimately, the UK has the second largest EU economy and makes major contributions to the overall budget, so there will also be repercussions for the next pan-European science and research funding programme that follows Horizon 2020. In a post-Brexit situation, the UK should perhaps seek to make itself a reliable and once again stable neighbour, rather than an awkward family member.