UK physicists begin life outside the EU — but remain in Horizon Europe

Physics

Moving forward: A trade deal late last year between the UK and the EU came as a relief to many scientists as it allows continued British participation in the Horizon Europe programme. (Courtesy: iStock/microstockhub)

Following years of negotiations, delays and disagreements, on Christ­mas Eve the United Kingdom and the European Union finally agreed a trade deal following the UK’s exit from the EU. With the threat of a “no deal” looming large, the move ended years of uncertainty for UK scientists. The UK now joins Swit­zerland, Norway and 14 other non-EU nations as having “associated country” status of the seven-year €95bn Horizon Europe programme, which began last month. Yet many of the fine details of the deal still need to be ironed out, while 2020 also saw the end of most of the UK’s involvement in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

UK scientists have done excep­tionally well from EU research programmes in previous years. Estimates suggest the UK contrib­uted €5.4bn between 2007 and 2013 but received €8.8bn. As part of the Brexit deal, UK researchers remain eligible for Horizon Europe fund­ing on equivalent terms to their EU counterparts, with the UK’s finan­cial contribution being based on a share of its gross domestic product. Each year the UK’s contributions will be adjusted upwards or down­wards, based on how much it has paid in and taken out in previous years.

But crucially it will not be able to take out more than it pays in, mean­ing that the UK could lose access to a lot of extra funding. “The focus must now be on ensuring a fair and effective means to deliver appropri­ate association to EU science fund­ing programmes, such as Horizon Europe, outlined in the agreement,” says Royal Society president Adrian Smith. “Any delay in delivering such association will damage UK sci­ence.” UK researchers will not be able to take part in Horizon Europe until the details of the association have been agreed.

For UK science, the deal translates into getting notably less funding than before per pound sent to Brussels and, even more impor­tantly, a diminished influence in defining future priorities

Andre Geim

John Womersley, director-general of the European Spallation Source in Sweden, told Physics World that the deal provides most of what the research community had asked for, adding that “it’s a bit disappointing that there hasn’t been more trumpet­ing of this as a success”. He says that association with Horizon Europe was the highest priority for the UK’s research sector. “It comes as a huge relief to know that it will be imple­mented, especially after some nega­tive signals last autumn,” he says.

Indeed, in August more than 100 organizations and individuals rep­resenting the European scientific community had signed a statement urging the EU and the UK to com­promise due to fears the UK would lose its place in Horizon Europe. One of the signatories – Anton Zensus, director at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany – told Physics World that he was very relieved by the deal, adding that it was “compromise we all have to live with”.

Yet others were not so positive. Physics Nobel laureate Andre Geim from the University of Manchester thinks that associated status will create “a bias against choosing Brits as programme leaders and against accepting UK-envisaged priorities” for funding. “As many people were so afraid of no-deal, this agree­ment might look like good news,” he told Physics World. “But make no mistake: for UK science, the deal translates into getting notably less funding than before per pound sent to Brussels and, even more impor­tantly, a diminished influence in defining future priorities.” Geim adds that the deal “is the price to pay  for jingoism” and will mean “more paperwork, less science”.

Nuclear co-operation

As part of the Brexit deal, the UK will also become an associated country in the Euratom programme. “On a practical level, an association means that the UK will still participate in all EU fusion programme activities,” says Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Continued membership is subject to formal approval by both sides, but Chapman adds that “it is both par­ties’ firm intention that the protocol will be adopted at the earliest oppor­tunity”. The deal includes the UK’s ongoing participation in the ITER fusion experiment through member­ship of Fusion for Energy – the EU body responsible for its contribution to ITER. The Joint European Torus, which is based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, is largely funded by Euratom and is cur­rently contracted to operate during 2021, with a further extension being discussed, according to Chapman.

Yet the UK will not be joining every Horizon Europe programme. UK researchers will, for example, be excluded from the European Innova­tion Council Fund. This new equity fund will provide grants to support start-ups and university spin-offs, but not those in the UK, according to the terms of the trade deal. The future of the UK’s participation in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fel­lowships as well as the European Strategy Forum on Research and Innovation is also currently unknown and will require further negotiation.

The UK in addition failed to reach an agreement with the EU over its membership of the Erasmus student-exchange programme. The exit from the exchange scheme, which applies to all students except those in North­ern Ireland, came as a surprise as prime minister Boris Johnson had reassured MPs in January 2020 that there was no threat to the UK’s membership of Erasmus. But the two sides were reportedly unable to reach an agreement over costs. Last year a report by Universities UK Interna­tional found that Erasmus students contributed more than £240m a year profit to the UK economy.

Instead, the UK government announced its own £100m scheme, named after Alan Turing, to support UK students who wish to study abroad. The government said the new Turing scheme would provide funding for around 35 000 students to go overseas, starting in Septem­ber 2021, adding that it would target more students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas. But it will not fund students from other coun­tries coming to the UK, cutting an important source of funding for UK universities.

UUKI director Vivienne Stern said that while the Erasmus announcement was “dis­appointing”, they were “pleased” the government has committed to a new UK programme to fund global mobility. “We now ask the UK gov­ernment to quickly provide clarity on this Erasmus domestic alternative, and that it be ambitious and fully funded,” she adds. Rachel Young­man, deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, says that despite some positives in the deal, the institute is “disappointed” and “concerned” by the decision over Erasmus, adding that the IOP has “consistently argued for the importance of international exchange for university students”. 

The business view

Leaving the EU also means change for businesses with new tariffs, cus­toms arrangements, export regula­tions and other trading conditions. But the impact of the trade deal on the British industrial-physics community may take time to be fully understood given the global pandemic. Arnab Basu, founder and chief executive officer of the Kromek Group, which makes radi­ation-detection components and devices for medical imaging and nuclear security, told Physics World that so far the supply chain seems to be resilient. Kromek manufactures or sources most of its mechanical components in the UK and much of its electrical components in Asia and the US, meaning little impact from Brexit so far.

However, Basu says there “is some evidence of price increases for pur­chases from distributors ostensibly related to an uplift in logistics or administrative costs for goods com­ing in from the EU”. The company has also been advised of potential delays in shipment of goods manu­factured outside of the UK, but Basu adds “it is difficult to determine the extent to which that is down to the global pandemic as opposed to Brexit”.

Many physics-based compa­nies must also deal with additional regulations linked to the supply of items for medical therapeutics and imaging. “The biggest implication for our company is that we work in the diagnostics field and we now face two sets of regulations for any product we develop,” says Steve Self, commercial director of Stream Bio, a UK-based start-up that manufac­tures nanoparticles for applications in bioimaging. “This means that we have to do some additional work to qualify our products for sale in Europe,” he says.

Despite Geim’s disapproval over Brexit, he does see one main advan­tage in the deal – staying in the European Research Council (ERC). Indeed, there was good news from the ERC last month when UK sci­entists received the largest number of grants in the council’s first post- Brexit funding round. Eight of its 55 “proof of concept” grants – which explore the commercial potential of scientists’ work – will go to UK-based researchers. “The ERC was among a few prominent defenders of research quality as determined by peers rather than bureaucrats and politicians,” Geim says. “The UK’s participation in the ERC provides an important lifeline for fundamental research.”

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