Will a No-deal Brexit Deplete UK University Research?

With the latest actions by UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson, a no-deal exit from the EU on October 31 appears increasingly possible, an outcome that could hurt UK scientific research. Scientific research at universities would be especially hard hit, according a report released earlier this month by the UK House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee.

According to the report, one of the most dire predictions is a loss of funding for scientific research. Direct EU funding for UK university research totaled €120 billion ($141 billion at €0.85 = $1) between 2014 and 2020. Sixty-two percent of such funding came from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program, the EU’s major funding program for science. In 2018, total EU funding for UK research, including Horizon 2020, accounted for 11%, or £8.2 billion ($10.9 billion at £0.75 = $1) of investment in UK university research.

In response to concerns that a no-deal exit would jeopardize UK researchers’ participation in Horizon 2020, the UK has taken steps to assure the continuation of funding. It has pledged to replace EU such funding that was allocated prior to the exit. Last year, it expanded these commitments, stating it would guarantee “underwriting the UK’s full allocation for structural and investment fund projects,” as well as “funding for UK organizations which successfully bid directly to the European Commission—through projects like Horizon 2020—until the end of this EU budget period if no deal is agreed.”

However, the pledge does not fully commit to covering other funding mechanisms besides Horizon 2020, such as grants from the European Research Council. In testimony before the House of Lords, university representatives stressed that such grants often provide a higher level of funding for certain areas compared to the UK, such as early-career researchers and discovery research. Furthermore, a no-deal exit could put the country’s full participation in the next Horizon program in doubt.  Testimony gathered for the report also noted other possible fallout post Brexit, such as the UK’s exclusion for major scientific infrastructure projects and the loss of participation in inter-EU research networks.

University representatives also voiced concerns about the recruitment of researchers and students from abroad post a no-deal Brexit, as associated immigration and funding policies could be subject to changes. In addition, scientists may leave UK universities to work outside the country, weakening the country’s research resources.

University researchers cited in the report also expressed concerns about how funds the UK previously contributed to the EU for R&D would be redistributed domestically. This funding totaled €5.4 billion ($6.4 billion) from 2007 to 2013. Specific concerns include a general decline in R&D investments and allocation based on different criteria and goals, potentially shortchanging areas like basic research or fields considered less important.

Reflecting the concerns of university researchers, the report makes the following recommendations regarding Brexit:

“We urge the Government to associate the UK with Horizon Europe as soon as possible, to ensure certainty and stability for researchers in universities and industry.

The Government should ensure that once the UK has left the EU the level of funding the UK currently receives from the EU for research is matched in full. As the UK is a net beneficiary of EU research funding this amount will be greater than the amount the UK currently contributes to the EU research pot.

Public funding for research in universities after Brexit should seek to replace not just the amount of funding but the areas it supports, like discovery research and scientific infrastructure and facilities. It is important to the scientific community that the basis for awarding funding is research excellence.

Retaining the mobility of researchers after Brexit is vital to ensuring the UK can continue to attract the best researchers and meet its research and development goals. The Government must ensure post-Brexit immigration laws do not hinder the ability of UK universities to recruit and retain the scientific staff they require, including technicians earning below the recommended salary threshold. In doing so the Government must also give consideration to amending immigration laws relating to families and dependants of those scientific staff.

We urge the Government to communicate to the EU and the rest of the world that the UK is committed to continuing research collaborations after it has left the EU, and we look forward to seeing the recommendations put forward by Professor Sir Adrian Smith in his review of international research collaboration.”