The prospect of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, has loomed long and large over researchers, but the effects on funding, so far, have been speculative. Now, a European funding agency has made a pre-emptive strike in advance of Brexit, changing a policy that directly impacts grants in the United Kingdom. The European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Association, in Brussels, is requiring that U.K. grant holders shift financial administration to a partner in Europe by 1 May.
COST says the change will prevent disruption if Brexit occurs without a deal to smooth the transition, and that it does not affect participation by U.K. scientists. But U.K. grant holders say the policy change is premature, disruptive to research—and in at least one case it has led to a staff layoff. “The bureaucratic nightmare of moving these grants is pretty horrendous,” says Nic Walton, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
COST hands out about €33 million per year in grants designed to stimulate and expand research networks. The 4-year grants, each about €500,000, typically include dozens of partners in Europe and elsewhere. The funding covers travel to workshops, training, and other outreach and networking events. Often, the events lead to larger collaborative research proposals, says Stefan Bouzarovski, a geographer at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who chairs a network on improving access to household energy with more than 200 members in 40 countries.
On 2 April, COST asked the 20 networks administered by U.K. researchers to prepare to move their grants to a non-U.K. partner. Other European programs that fund multination collaborations, such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020, have not required U.K. leaders to hand over the reins in advance of Brexit. (COST is an intergovernmental organization and not part of the European Union, although its funding for grants comes from Horizon 2020.)
The decision is rushed, participants say, given that the deadline for Brexit has been pushed back to 31 October. It was also a surprise that COST did not propose this change in the leadup to the previous deadline, 29 March, when a no-deal Brexit was a growing concern across Europe. “We completely appreciate that the timelines are very short,” says Ronald de Bruin, director of the COST Association. “It was not a light decision.”
De Bruin says the key factor is that COST’s annual grant payments occur on 1 May. If a no-deal Brexit happens in October, then COST will have to cancel the grant contracts to U.K. institutions, because the European Union does not allow Horizon 2020 funds to be spent by nonassociated nations. New administrators for U.K.-led grants—about 6% of the total—would need to be found in the middle of the grant cycle. COST would have to try to recover the unspent funds and potentially face audits and legal challenges. “It would lead to an existential risk for our association,” de Bruin says.
Five grant holders have already made the change. Others are waiting to see whether COST changes its policy about transferring grants. “I’m not going to move it until I absolutely have to,” says Walton, who leads a network on studying the Milky Way with the European Gaia satellite.
It’s not easy to find a new grant administrator, because the job requires a capability to reimburse participants and training in Brussels. Because of the funding uncertainty, Bouzarovski could not renew the contract of his administrator.
Bouzarovski is considering postponing two upcoming events for his network in June: a session at EU Sustainable Energy Week , and a training event. “I fear that the appropriate procedures might not be in place.” Simona Francese, a forensic scientist at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom and chair of a COST grant on forensic science, is worried she may not be able to fund 10 students to attend a forensic science summer school in late May while she transfers administration to a partner in Austria.
Bouzarovski started a petition to ask COST to reverse the change until a no-deal Brexit looks imminent. More than 300 have signed on. But success looks unlikely, and yesterday he closed the petition. Bouzarovski says he will move his grant as soon as he finds someone to take it on. “We cannot risk any further disruption.”