Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Price of Prosecco

Kortrijk. Helps salve the horror of Brexit (image: R/DV/RS CC BY)
With more detail of the EU's next Framework Programme, Horizon Europe, crystallising in Brussels, it's time to look back at an article I wrote last year on the need for Britain's academic leaders to lobby MEPs and make the case for the UK's continuing involvement. 

When Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk informing him of the UK’s intention to leave the EU, I made sure I was out of the country. It felt too dispiriting for a Europhile to witness this act of self-harm. I cycled down from my home in Canterbury and went through the Eurotunnel, emerging into the bright flatlands of Nord Pas de Calais and then cycling on to the Belgian border, stopping at the end of the day for a beer in the beautiful town of Kortrijk.

As the sun went down on the medieval square, I thought about the effect that the UK’s withdrawal would have on our engagement with the EU, and in particular how it would affect our work both in securing research funding and in encouraging the brightest European minds to work in our universities.

Of course, at this stage it’s all speculation. David Lauder of the University of York wrote a useful and measured analysis in Funding Insight in February about the potential effect of Brexit. ‘[It] will change the UK research landscape and considerably alter the way the UK interacts with the Framework programmes,’ he wrote. ’Even the best-case scenario for research, which will be hard to achieve, will weaken the UK’s ability to influence European research policymaking, though this is probably of less concern to the UK’s researchers than the threat of reduced access to funding.’

Last month I wrote on my blog about what I understood to be the current situation, and a possible way forward following the divorce. For the moment the EU is trying to calm the research horses. Until the UK actually leaves the union, it has said, it is still a full member state, with all the associated ‘rights and obligations’: UK legal entities [are eligible] to participate and receive funding in Horizon 2020 actions.

It went on to reassure investigators that, in assessing their applications “experts [will] not evaluate proposals from the UK any differently than before”, and that “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.”

Furthermore, after the UK leaves the EU, the UK Treasury has agreed to safeguard 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.

However, looking further ahead, things are less certain. In my piece I suggested that the UK may look to being a ‘country with a Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreement with the Framework programme, similar to that held by Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, and the United States.

These countries have à la carte participation in Horizon 2020, and their academics receive funding for participation in chosen themes from their national funders. But Lauder noted that, if the UK chose to engage on its own terms, “It could undermine the whole ethos of how EU funding is supported.”
All this was brought into sharp focus by a recent workshop run by the UKRO, at which a question was raised about what we in UK higher education should be doing, right now. The answer was simple: we should encourage and cajole our leaders to go to Brussels and befriend and lobby as many non-UK MEPs as they can.

The reason for this is simple. While Horizon 2020 still has a little under three years to run, the budget for the next Framework programme is already starting to be negotiated. These negotiations are long, complex and fraught, and there is no appetite, once it is agreed, to revise it. If no allowance for a potential UK contribution is factored into this embryonic budget, which is due to be published by the end of the year, it will be almost impossible to change it later on.

Thus, if MEPs do not have an awareness of the concerns of UK researchers, and the huge mutual benefit that participation brings to both the UK and wider European Research Area, and if they are not persuaded that there might be even an outside chance that the UK’s engagement might continue, it would make our involvement once the budget is set highly unlikely.

Time is of the essence, and we should all persuade our vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors, our provosts, presidents and chief executives, to go to Brussels as soon as possible and talk to MEPs. They should take them out to dinner, buy them a glass or two of prosecco and tell them about the importance of European funding in the UK.

It was politics that got us into Brexit, and it will be politics that decides whether we have access to Framework 9. The cost of the Eurostar ticket and a meal for two is a small price to pay for vouchsafing the future of our European research, and it is only through such a concerted effort that there is any chance of the UK continuing to enjoy the benefits of working on a continental scale.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in March 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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