The U.K. government wants to continue research with the European Union at the Joint European Torus, a fusion facility, after Brexit. 

Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

United Kingdom wants cozy science ties with Europe after Brexit

The U.K. government today released a long-awaited position paper on the future of scientific collaborations with the European Union after Brexit. Its overarching goal is “a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.”

Despite the lofty aim, the paper is getting a mixed reception. While lauding the aspiration of such a science arrangement as “absolutely correct,” John Womersley, who directs the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden, said in a statement that “the paper is so lacking implementation details that it will probably disappoint most of the science community rather than reassure them.”

Topping the list of complaints is the lack of clarity over how the U.K. government will ensure the continued exchange of scientific talent across the English Channel. In contrast to the government’s stated wish in the paper to attract the “best and brightest,” Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, notes that a leaked draft strategy on immigration, if implemented, “could lead to swathes of scientists and engineers being cut off from entering the U.K.” The research community is also worried about shortfalls in funding and about new complexities in regulations.

The position paper, released by the Department for Exiting the European Union, touts the success of scientists in the United Kingdom at winning EU grants. More than 7300 researchers have grants from the European Union’s main science framework program, Horizon 2020, the greatest number for any country. In total, the U.K. research community takes home more money than the United Kingdom contributes to the program.

The United Kingdom could still participate in Horizon 2020 after leaving the European Union. Sixteen associated countries, such as Norway, buy their way into participation in the competitive grants programs and into research networks in rare diseases and other consortia. As for the position paper’s call for a closer partnership with the European Union in science, it does not specify exactly what it wants. But one possibility is continued influence over research goals of the framework programs. Associated countries don’t get a vote.

Researchers hope that a bespoke agreement on participation can be reached quickly, perhaps allowing input into the design of the framework program that follows Horizon 2020. In the meantime, there are concerns about a loss of eligibility for new Horizon 2020 grants after March 2019, when the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union.

Much else remains uncertain for U.K. researchers. The pharmaceutical industry wants to be sure that any future regulatory system will not hinder clinical trials, for example. And the United Kingdom will pull out of Euratom, a treaty that governs civilian nuclear safety and research, including the Joint European Torus (JET) and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Although the U.K. government has said it will contribute its share of JET funding after Brexit, a new relationship will likely need to be crafted.