Friday, 17 March 2017

Bonfire of the Sanities

Since the EU Referendum last year, there has been a lot of uncertainty about what it will mean for UK academics. In the last edition of the Research Services' newsletter, Research Active, we looked at known unknowns, and why European funding is crucial to the University—and the UK as a whole.

Current Situation

The EU has made it clear that, until the UK actually leaves the Union, it is still a full Member State, with all ‘rights and obligations’: ‘UK legal entities [are eligible] to participate and receive funding in Horizon 2020 actions,’ it confirmed.

In Practice

But what does this mean in practice? Evaluators are being told by the Commission that ‘experts should not evaluate proposals from the UK any differently than before.’ Furthermore, in the ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQs) page of the H2020 Participant Portal, the EC states:
  • Q: 'Should project coordinators of Horizon 2020 proposals dedicate a part of their proposal to addressing the potential risks as a consequence of the UK Referendum?’
  • A: ‘No. At this stage, any speculation on the consequences for the Horizon 2020 action of a withdrawal of the UK from the EU will not be taken into account in the evaluation.'
The UK government has backed this up: ‘the referendum result has no immediate effect on those applying to or participating in Horizon 2020. UK participants can continue to apply to the programme in the usual way.’

Similarly, the Research Councils are ‘encourag[ing] researchers to continue to engage with partners in the EU and with European funding schemes as normal…We are working with Government to ensure that the concerns and needs of UK researchers are represented and are considered in the negotiation of a future relationship with the EU.‘

The University is certainly supportive of its academics continuing to apply. ‘We would encourage all those considering applying for European funding to continue with their plans. Not only is it an excellent source of funding, and facilitates incredibly productive collaborations, but it demonstrates that Kent is outward looking, engaged, and remains the UK’s European university.'

After Departure

After the UK leaves the EU, the situation is less certain. However, the Treasury has agreed to underwrite any commitments to fund projects from the EU: ‘Where UK organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding projects while we are still a member of the EU, for example universities participating in Horizon 2020, the Treasury will underwrite the payments of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU.’

According to the UK Research Office in Brussels (UKRO), this will apply to both applications submitted and grants awarded before the exit date.

In addition, it is hoped that the UK will be able to renegotiate its engagement with the Framework Programme. UK research is a cornerstone of European research, and it currently coordinates 40% of all H2020 projects.

The ‘open’ principle of H2020 means all countries can participate, but not all receive funding. Nevertheless, a number of non-EU countries do so. They fall into three categories: 
  • Associated Countries (currently Iceland, Norway, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Israel, Moldova, Switzerland, Faroe Islands, Ukraine, Tunisia, Georgia, Armenia).They ‘participate under the same conditions as legal entities from the Member States.’ However, it is unlikely that the UK will do the same, as it would have to subscribe to the four basic freedoms of the EU: the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
  • Third Countries: a substantial list of broadly ‘developing’ countries. Once again, this does not apply to the UK.
  • Countries with Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreements (currently Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Tunisia, USA).These countries have an ‘a la   carte’ participation with H2020,   and their academics receive funding for participation in chosen   themes from their national funders.

Realistically, if the EU allows the UK to sign such an agreement, this seems the most likely outcome.

Beyond Funding

In the meantime academics should explore the possibilities of collaborations and agreements with institutions within the EU. The Rector of Leuven, Prof Rik Torfs, was quoted in the Times Higher as saying that ‘you could imagine [an] association of certain excellent UK and continental universities, with legal personality, somewhere in Brussels…a centre for discussing research and for participating in all kinds of [research] programmes and [for going] in search of funding.’

And Finally

Whilst we should assume that the UK will leave the EU, it is not a given, and staff are encouraged to make their voices heard on this. In terms of research funding, the UK is a net beneficiary of EU funding: between 2007-13 it contributed 5.4bn for research, and received 8.8bn. As a recent editorial in Nature, put it, ‘leaving the European Union is not yet a done deal, and UK researchers must look past a pay-off and take a stand.’

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