The inevitable gravity of Brexit squeezes UK scientists


One of the most contentious parts of the torturous post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and Europe was the dispute settlement process. It is now being tested. The United Kingdom prompted the move last week, complaining that the European Union has blocked its access to billions in science funding in retaliation for Britain’s plan to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland trade deal. Dad, meet dad.

Time will tell you everything. The front-runner to replace Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, is also responsible for Brexit issues. A row with Brussels is a tried and tested way to woo Tory voters.

As with the entire Brexit debacle, the dispute perfectly captures how the UK’s hard-line approach quickly hits the wall of economic and political reality. In this case, the price for British scientists and researchers will be high: they are at risk of losing access to the biggest science funding program of its kind anywhere, a nearly $100 billion pot called Horizon, along with a number of other research programs. such as Euratom, which engages in nuclear innovation; Copernicus, Earth observation efforts and space programs.

Officially, science has nothing to do with product controls in Northern Ireland. Unofficially, of course, they are all connected. The aim at the time of the UK-EU trade deal was for the UK to become an associate member of Horizon. But the EU canceled the Horizon association agreement after Johnson’s government declared its intention to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the divorce related to trade in Northern Ireland. The bloc isn’t kidding either – it has previously excluded Switzerland from the funding program for other bilateral disputes.

The dispute process triggers 30 days of consultation after which it would go to arbitration. If the EU is found to be in breach of the trade agreement and not complying, the UK can seek compensation; if the EU refuses to pay compensation, then the UK can pursue specific trade remedies.

Before it comes to that, there are a number of possible ramps. But as Zach Meyers, a senior fellow at the Center for European Reform, notes, much of the damage has already been done. While both sides are suffering from the drag of this dispute, it is the UK, as with most Brexit issues, that has the most to lose.

The Horizon program (current incarnation, Horizon Europe, runs from 2021 to 2027) has funded collaborations that have led to advances in medicine, better understanding of Covid-19, improvements in leukemia treatment and innovations in hydrogen cells for nutrition zero emission buses. , among other achievements. Before Brexit, more than a third of UK research papers were co-authored with European scientists. Associate status would allow UK participants to apply for grants on the same basis as EU applicants and lead international teams.

rexit has already had a significant negative impact on UK science. This has meant alienating scientists and researchers who felt unwanted or had to move to the EU to secure access to funding. The UK’s annual share of EU research support fell by almost a third between 2015 and 2019. Before the Brexit referendum, the UK received 16% of Horizon grants in monetary terms; by 2018, it was only 11%. About 115 grants from Horizon were terminated in July because of the current dispute.

No problem, Johnson said; we will simply replace the funds. Last month, the government released its Plan B, which at least suggests that the roughly £15 billion ($17.7 billion) earmarked for Horizon over the next decade will not be used for other urgent needs. Britain did a similar thing when it left the EU’s Erasmus student exchange program and created its own Turing plan.

And yet in both cases, the UK version is a poor substitute for the original. Meyers notes that while the UK was getting more from Horizon in financial terms than it was investing, it is the qualitative elements that mean the biggest loss. Horizon’s great breadth and prestige meant many economies of scale, including lower costs than for standalone programs. New partnerships take some time to form and can be more complicated; Regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU made it easier to co-operate in areas such as animal testing.

The UK has long been a laggard in R&D spending. And despite having some of the best research universities in the world, very few innovations seem to have been commercialized. It is also expensive for foreign researchers to obtain visas and move to the UK.

“It is in the UK’s interest to make it look like these are alternatives to EU programmes, but the reality is they are not,” says Meyers. A plan B is better than no plan. But creating a unilateral scheme and saying it is as good as a multilateral scheme was always going to require a bigger leap of faith than the government has any right to expect. The UK may still participate in some programs on a pay-to-play basis, which will simply increase costs for less benefit.

Once in office, if her flagship status is indeed confirmed, finding an off-platform would be the wisest option for Truss. She can talk tough now to win votes, but reaching an association agreement with the EU would do much more to demonstrate seriousness about productivity improvements and growth.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Britain’s aspiring leaders are too calm on Brexit: Clive Crook

• Johnson leaves but UK damage will continue: Max Hastings

• Here’s a Brexit promise Boris Johnson can’t keep: Vince Cable

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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