Ongoing UK Research Problems (11) – Time to Panic?

(December 6th, 2017) Following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK government has resolved to be the first nation ever to withdraw from the European Union. In the absence of any previous example nor any clear plan for how the UK will achieve its divorce, uncertainty reigns.

After a summer of disastrously inept “negotiations” by the UK’s team from the “Department for Exiting the EU”, led by their minister David Davis, confidence in the UK government’s handling of Brexit has dropped further. “Hard Brexit” has suddenly emerged as a real possibility, i.e. that the UK government is prepared to leave the EU on 29th March 2019 without any agreed deal on trade with the EU, movement of people across borders, etc. The prospect of a Hard Brexit represents a nightmare scenario for institutional science, which relies on long-term stability to recruit researchers, establish and fund research facilities, and to build international collaborations.

Brexit has created deep divisions in UK politics – between the hardliners, who want to leave the EU “at any cost”, those who seek a “good” (that is, not too bad) negotiated settlement, and those who are pushing to stop Brexit completely (possibly through a second referendum). Senior political figures in the EU and UK have suggested that it is still not too late to cancel the entire Brexit process, a position that remains legally possible right up to the last day of the UK’s membership on 29th March 2019.

However, in September 2017, the UK government changed its tactics. Instead of an aggressive divorce with no agreed settlement, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK would be willing to cooperate with the EU by paying over around £20 billion (still somewhat less than the EU’s estimate of £60 billion). For UK science, there was also a new message of upbeat optimism, as outlined in a position paper on “future partnerships” in science and innovation. In it, the government says science is central to its post-Brexit ambitions and that it wants “to agree a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU that establishes a framework for future collaboration.” The paper calls for a “dialogue with the EU” on the shape of a future science and innovation agreement, reflecting “our joint interest in promoting continued close cooperation, for the benefit of UK and European prosperity”.

The government says it is committed to strengthening the UK’s world-leading science base, which “includes four of the world’s top 10 universities, a world-class intellectual property regime, and more Nobel Laureates than any country outside the United States”. It notes that with only 0.9% of the global population and 4.1% of researchers, the UK accounted for 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles in 2013.

Furthermore, the paper notes that EU science also stands to lose out if existing ties to the UK are cut: “Partnerships between the UK and other EU member states significantly increase the impact and influence of EU science and research activity.” For example, in the field of medical and health research, the share of EU co-authored publications in the top 10% of highly cited publications is higher when collaborating with the UK. The UK is also a “top five collaboration partner” for each of the other 27 member states, and contributed almost 20% of the total research work carried out within EU health programmes between 2007 and 2016.

The paper concludes: “There are a range of existing precedents for collaboration that the UK and the EU can build on, but our uniquely close relationship means there may be merit in designing a more ambitious agreement. The UK hopes to have a full and open discussion with the EU about all of these options as part of the negotiations on our future partnership.”

However, as various groups have pointed out, even though it is the UK that is disrupting the existing EU research programmes, the UK government still doesn’t seem to understand that any future arrangements for science will depend on clarifying the UK’s position on the fundamental principles of the EU, even if it no longer wishes to be a formal member. Although it documents the current arrangements for UK science collaborations with the EU – including Horizon 2020, space programmes, nuclear R&D, defence R&D, and membership of EU science and innovation agencies – the paper doesn’t actually specify what terms of continued membership the UK is seeking.

Nevertheless, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, presented a glowing vision of “a global Britain” that must be a country that looks to the future. “That means being one of the best places in the word for science and innovation. This paper sends a clear message to the research and innovation community that we value their work and we feel it is crucial that we maintain collaboration with our European partners after we exit. We want to attract the brightest minds to the UK to build on the already great work being done across the country to ensure that our future is bright and we grow this important sector.”

But the campaigning group Scientists for EU - which supported the ‘Remain’ vote in the referendum on EU membership and is now campaigning to prevent Brexit – accused the government of producing an empty paper and pinning its hopes on solutions emerging “from the ether”. It said the position paper is “utterly devoid of any suggestions for bridging Brexit obstacles”, does not make “any attempt to acknowledge and creatively tackle the hard issues” around future collaboration with EU partners, and “merely sells warm dreamy fog”. Rob Davidson, Director of Scientists for EU said: “The Brexit government is not impressing anyone with these empty papers. They seem to be hoping that the EU will provide a solution to the problems of Brexit when it is the responsibility of the Brexit leaders to defend their claims with realistic solutions.”

Scientists for EU particularly noted the sentence: “(…) the UK would also like to explore forging a more ambitious and close partnership with the EU than any yet agreed between the EU and a non-EU country.” Yet, this statement occurs a few lines before stating “freedom of movement will cease to apply in the UK”. They “openly wonder at the notion that Brexit Britain should have a more privileged status with the EU than Switzerland or Norway, who subscribe to Free Movement, accept ECJ jurisdiction on projects and have close Single Market bonds.”

In fact, Scientists for EU says that the position paper would have been “remarkably useful” before the referendum debate in June 2016. “It documents the current UK-EU-European science ecosystem beautifully. However, it is presented at this late hour as a blueprint for future partnership, yet without concrete suggestions for building bridges or acknowledgement of barriers.” They say this is completely unacceptable, given how little time remains, in which to complete the “herculean” Brexit negotiations.

“At stake here is a UK-EU relationship in science which is truly world-leading. Europe is a team which produces 39% of the world’s scientific output. However, this team of countries participating in the EU science programme abides by certain rules and understandings. The Government paper does not make clear how the UK plans to meet with or negotiate those obligations. The obvious barriers are 1) amount of funding, 2) recognition of European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction for project-level dispute settlement and, most importantly, 3) abiding by/renegotiating EU and EFTA free movement of people.” For Davidson, “the key problems for science are the two ‘red lines’ of restricting Freedom of Movement and not being subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ. This paper fails to address either of these and as a result perpetuates the damage being caused to UK research and technology by Brexit uncertainty.”

James McGrory, Executive Director of the Open Britain campaign (“a cross-party, grassroots campaign, leading the fight against a hard, destructive Brexit”) was equally scathing of the paper. He said: “The Government is going to need to do more than cross its fingers and hope if it wants to reassure British scientists and researchers who are worried sick about the possible consequences of Brexit. Cooperation with our European partners is vital to Britain’s science and tech sectors, and any reduction in that cooperation will damage our universities and put British jobs at risk”.

Kurt Deketelaere, the secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) said the UK’s position paper on post-Brexit science aims for the ‘impossible’ because it seeks a UK-EU research agreement yet it ignores the ‘decisive’ role of the immigration system. He referred to a draft Home Office document which states that the UK will end the free movement of labour after Brexit, with those in highly skilled professions – likely to include researchers – granted work permits for three to five years. The “whole migration policy will be absolutely decisive for what is possible on research”, said Deketelaere. He suggested that “a top researcher with a huge status” who reads these proposals will say “the UK is the last country I’m going to go to.”

Deketelaere also said that the paper maintained near “silence” on the highly prestigious European Research Council, which he attributed to the fact that ERC grant holders are required to spend at least 50 per cent of their working time in an EU member state or associated country, with a substantial proportion of the UK’s ERC grant holders being non-UK nationals. “The UK know if they start talking about that, they will be confronted with the problems that residence brings about,” opening up the issue of the immigration regime’s determining influence on the future of UK research, he argued.
A recent flurry of articles has described the barely disguised panic among some UK universities and their staff. On 14/11/17, the British Academy warned that the UK risks a “mass exodus of EU academics post-Brexit”. In its report, it notes that up to half of academic staff in some university departments are EU nationals and says that EU staff urgently need more clarity about their status and their post-Brexit rights if they are to commit to remain in the UK. Almost 40,000 non-UK EU staff currently work in UK universities, who constitute 12% of all full-time equivalent staff across the higher education sector. Most work in London and south-east England where more than 17,000 are employed in universities and almost 4,500 work in Scotland. The subjects most at risk are economics (with 36% non-UK EU staff) and modern languages (35%), mathematics (29%), physics (28%), chemical engineering (26%) and politics and international relations (25%).

On 22/11/17, Stuart Croft, Vice Chancellor of Warwick University told the Guardian that UK universities “face disaster within weeks” without a clear Brexit plan. He says British universities face “a moment of great trauma” in the next few weeks unless the government makes clear its post-Brexit plans for EU residents in the UK: “A lot of organisations, not just universities, feel that there will be a moment when either some form of deal is likely or no deal is likely. And at the ‘no deal is likely’ moment – it could be in December, it could be four weeks away – then people will start to make some big decisions about their futures.” Warwick University currently employs around 800 staff from the rest of the EU, out of 6,500 staff in total, and Croft said it was not just professors and senior researchers whose departure would harm the university. “The whole idea that organisations like ours can be rent apart in this sort of way is utterly bizarre, and actually quite mendacious.”

His warning comes as universities across the UK are reluctantly drawing up plans to cope with the UK’s eventual exit from the EU, although many say they are unable to adequately look ahead because of the lack of detail coming from the government. The Russell Group lists the issue of EU nationals as its number one priority for a post-Brexit deal, saying the 25,000 staff employed at its universities are “indispensable to our world-class institutions”. Warwick, along with many other British universities, is providing legal advice to EU staff, who are able to apply for British citizenship in order to stay with their homes and families. Croft said “I’m really uncomfortable with being part of a project, saying to them: ‘You may be Italian but actually now you need to become British.’

Once again, the UK government’s response to worries from scientists has been to promise yet more money for UK science post-Brexit, but more restrictive conditions for getting this new money are now appearing (see Part 12).

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 12.21.2017

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