Don’t atomise science in EU-UK negotiations

Research is one of the UK’s strengths, and effective cooperation on science is in everyone’s interests. It’s hardly the most contentious area of the negotiations on the future relationship with the European Union, but with the clock ticking, have we underestimated how hard it might be to strike a deal for this area?

The EU-UK negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship will be all about choices, priorities and compromises. The research community has been worried for some time that cooperation on research and innovation might not figure highly on a list of things to be thrashed out as part of the Brexit process. Politically contentious issues such as the Northern Ireland border and fishing rights will naturally be where the negotiators want to spend most of their time, with the risk that research will be at the back of the queue.

Researchers have always found consolation in the idea that finding a landing zone for an EU-UK science agreement should be relatively easy. After all, continued UK participation in EU research programmes has been described on the continent as a ‘win-win’, and it’s clear that international collaboration makes for better science. Or at least that’s how the theory goes.

Our simulated negotiation process

At Wellcome, we’ve been working to test this hypothesis through a simulated negotiation between the UK and the EU to create an agreement on research and innovation.

We’re a global funder of research, but the majority of our £1bn spending each year is in the UK. The UK is a great place to invest in science, and we want that to continue – so the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship for research matters to us.

The Brexit priorities for the research community, as a whole, have been known for some time, through our previous work with the Royal Society. At the top are continued participation in EU research funding programmes, mobility of researchers, and alignment on key areas of regulation that scientists to work together easily.

Our simulation added in the dynamics of a negotiation between two parties, each with their own interests and priorities in this area. We wanted to dig into the details of what an agreement might look like, rather than just a set of shared aspirations amongst researchers.

The good news is that it worked – we isolated a small number of areas, and got our ‘UK team’ and ‘EU team’ to work up an agreed ‘legal text’, which we’ve published this week. But the road to a deal wasn’t as smooth as you might imagine.

Participation in Horizon Europe

Perhaps the biggest question for researchers on both sides of the Channel will be whether the UK participates fully in the next major EU framework programme for research, known as Horizon Europe. This is the latest in a long series of major multi-year funding programmes, which traditionally the UK has been a substantial beneficiary from – second only in success levels to Germany. Horizon Europe takes the scale of this programme to the next level, with a possible total budget of 100bn Euros.

Crucially, full participation in these framework programmes isn’t contingent on being a Member State. The exact requirements for participation as a Third Country in the new programme have yet to be finalised, but for the current framework (‘Horizon 2020’), full access is negotiated with individual countries and formalised through an Association Agreement, setting out how much the country pays in to the programme and other conditions of participation.

Countries that are associated to Horizon 2020 include the Ukraine, Israel and Switzerland, and we used the precedents established in their association agreements to inform our negotiation process.

How much will it cost?

One of the trickier details of trying to create our own agreement was negotiating how much the UK should pay into the new programme. The precedent here is that countries pay in accordance with the size of their economies – a fee based on their Gross Domestic Product – rather than how much they’d expect to receive from the programme. However, we expect that the EU will want to move away from this mechanism. In the new Programme a non-Member State won’t be allowed to get out more than it puts in, or at least it will need to pay for it later through a financial correction mechanism.

Our agreement picks up on this and uses the UK’s historical success rates to inform how much it should pay into the new Programme, using a rolling average to update this with the UK’s performance in Horizon Europe as it continues. In theory this should keep the UK’s upfront financial contributions in line with what it is likely to receive, keeping the subsequent ‘corrections’ as small as possible.

It’s details like this that could make reaching an agreement harder than many might imagine.

Mobility of researchers

Meanwhile, we found through our negotiation process that our ‘EU team’ saw reciprocal arrangements to support mobility of researchers as being a crucial element of participating in Horizon Europe.

Mobility is clearly a big political issue of its own, but if agreement can’t be found on how best to ensure scientists can live and work across the UK and the EU then cooperation on research will be severely hampered.

Our solution was to link mobility to funding – if research workers are funded through the Horizon Europe programme then there should be reciprocal mobility arrangements to support them to do this work. We’re optimistic that this is something that could work, but it’s another area that would need careful negotiation.

Our process touched on a wide range of areas like this, each of which needed some careful analysis.

The clock is ticking

The biggest message from the process is that there’s a lot to cover and very little time to do it in.

In particular, the start date for the new programme represents a hard deadline for seeking association. Every sector will scrambling for priority over the coming weeks, but even if the 11-month Brexit transition period is extended beyond the end of 2020 that wouldn’t buy any extra time for science. The Withdrawal Agreement specifically rules out an extension applying to participation in Union programmes. If the UK hasn’t got a Horizon Europe agreement in place by the start date then it will be left behind and EU-UK collaboration on science will suffer.

A standalone deal for research and innovation

While there are lots of examples of Third Countries associating to Horizon 2020, they all do so under the umbrella of a much wider agreement with the EU. For the UK, this won’t be in place until the end of the year, at best. The EU does have various research agreements with other countries without an overarching FTA or equivalent, but none of these include association to a framework programme.

With no good options available, we recommend that the UK and EU aim for a standalone agreement on research and innovation. This would require an unprecedented level of depth for a country with no overarching FTA in place with the EU, but the importance of having it in place should not be underestimated.

The alternative is that science is ‘atomised’ through the negotiations – becoming a minor consideration in lots of different parts of the discussions. Treating cooperation on research in this way would be a mistake.

Martin Smith is Policy Manager at the Wellcome Trust in London.

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