Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research Contents

2Short-term responses to uncertainty

8.As Innovate UK told us during our Science Budget inquiry:

The strength of our globally respected research base is an unparalleled strategic asset for the UK and we must continue to invest in it. With 0.9% of the world’s population, and 3.2% of its R&D spend, we produce 15.9% of its most important research output. The UK is home to 4 of the top 6 universities in the world. The output of this engine of new knowledge discovery is a constant source of potential commercial advantage.6

Any discussion of the risks and opportunities for science and research of leaving the EU must begin with this as its starting point—UK science and research is a national asset that can either be nurtured and strengthened by appropriate stewardship and vision, or be compromised by neglect during the UK’s exit from the EU.

The Government’s initial reassurances

9.After the Referendum the Government moved quickly to provide initial reassurances to the sector that “nothing changed overnight” in terms of the UK’s rights and obligations as a member of the EU.7 In a speech at the Wellcome Trust on 30 June, the Science Minister said it was “business as usual” for UK researchers and businesses applying for EU funding through the ‘Horizon 2020’ Framework Programme,8 which the European Commission told us provided €1.2 billion to UK-based organisations for research project bids submitted in 2015 (16% of the total funding allocated in that period).9 The minister also confirmed that EU students currently studying in the UK or beginning their studies in the autumn would remain eligible for student finance throughout the duration of their courses, and it was subsequently announced that this would also apply to those starting courses in the 2017/18 academic year.10

10.Despite these statements, we heard over the summer from several universities that there were concerns that funding bids involving UK partners might now be looked upon less favourably in the EU’s research funding review process. Bias within the evaluation process is a theoretical possibility at least, because Horizon 2020 proposals are not judged ‘blind’—the identity and location of partners is known.11 Nevertheless, the European Commission assured us that “experts are briefed to evaluate proposals with United Kingdom-based participants without taking into consideration any speculation on the consequences for the Horizon 2020 action of a withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU”.12 In July, Carlos Moedas, the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, told the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester that “Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality”.13

11.There was also concern that collaborators would pressure UK researchers to withdraw from multi-national research projects. We received examples of this happening. For instance, the University of Liverpool told us that it was “aware of five instances where Liverpool researchers have had to surrender the lead partner role in a current Horizon 2020 consortium under preparation due to partner pressure”.14 Scientists for EU collected 40 examples of “Horizon 2020 disruption”, including UK partners stepping down from a coordinating role or being asked not to take part in a consortium.15 In our separate inquiry into Regenerative medicine, Ian Trenholm, the Chief Executive of NHS Blood & Transplant, told us that his organisation’s researchers have been asked “Who is going to lead the group? Well, it can’t be you because you are the British people”.16 Jo Johnson told us that 132 emails had been received in response to a request from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for evidence of the impact of Brexit on research programmes, and that two-thirds of these related to funding issues (although these may overlap with the earlier examples submitted to Scientists for EU).17 In response to such concerns, Commissioner Moedas urged the European scientific community “to continue to choose their project partners on the basis of excellence”,18 and BEIS corresponded with those who provided examples of being asked to withdraw from research consortia.19

12.We also heard, however, that there could be other cases where UK partners were simply not invited to join a research consortium in the first place. As Joe Gorman—a UK researcher based in Norway—put it, “if you are not invited to the party you don’t even know there is a party”.20 Jo Johnson agreed that this effect could be difficult to monitor:

It may be, as many have led us to understand, that this is not something that we will actually ever find; by its nature, you might not understand when an institution has not received a call because they are a UK institution. It is harder to get data on that sort of phenomenon. We have not received any really significant concrete evidence of discrimination at this point, but we are very vigilant and we are not complacent about that.21

Treasury guarantees

13.On 12 August the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced a range of further assurances in relation to the EU funding that the UK currently receives.22 On European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF), the Treasury stated that “all multi-year projects administered by government with signed contracts or funding agreements in place, and projects to be signed in the ordinary course of business before the Autumn Statement, will be fully funded, even when these projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU”. The Treasury’s announcement also explained that in the medium term “the Treasury will work with departments, Local Enterprise Partnerships and other relevant stakeholders to put in place arrangements for considering those ESIF projects that might be signed after the Autumn Statement but while we still remain a member of the EU”.23

14.Scientists for EU queried how projects agreed after the Autumn Statement will be reviewed:

Given that we are still in the EU and playing by EU rules for this period, it begs the question of why we would suddenly need this extra layer of national bureaucracy. It is not clear who will make these assessments and what will be the success rates. This poses a new risk as potential applicants may wonder how long approvals will take and whether it is worthwhile developing ERDF [a component of ESIF] proposals.

15.For other funding, including Horizon 2020, the Autumn Statement cut-off does not apply.24 The Treasury Minister stated that:

The Treasury will underwrite the payment of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. The UK will continue to be a world leader in international research and innovation collaboration, and we expect to ensure that close collaboration between the UK and the EU in science continues.

16.This announcement was welcomed by many groups. The University of Portsmouth explained that its Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation currently had two large European Research Council grants running to 2019 and 2020, and that “the Government announcement offers these projects, and the staff employed on them, valuable assurances about their research”.25

17.We asked the Treasury about how the decision to underwrite EU funds was taken, and what level of financial commitment it involved. They explained that:

The EU budget operates a dual budgeting system of legal “commitments” (in which the Commission signs a contract to pay the recipient funding, subject to meeting the funding criteria) and “payments” in which the funding is finally paid. Payments relate to a specific commitment and can be made several years after the commitment is made. A payment is only made when the recipient of the funding has met certain expectations under the terms of the funding agreement.

HM Treasury’s funding guarantee relates to the value of payments still to be made after the UK has left the EU for which there has been a commitment while the UK is still a member […] It is not yet possible to say how many of these outstanding payments the UK will need to supplement, on departure from the European Union. This will ultimately depend on agreement reached in exit negotiations following the Article 50 process.26

18.We asked Jo Johnson whether it was likely that the Treasury would actually need to step in to make these payments, given that they are based on the EU’s “legal commitments”. He told us that “there was strong demand from the stakeholder community for this reassurance,”27 and noted that “irrespective of whether it is required or not, it is there”.28 Robin Walker MP, a DExEU minister, added that:

One of the real benefits of the Treasury guarantees […] is that it sends the message to firms, to universities and to others to keep on bidding [...] The Article 50 process will take some time, and during that time we will be paying into the EU budgets. It is very important that we get out the value that we are due and that we continue to meet all our rights and responsibilities through that time.29

19.Jo Johnson also assured us that if expenditure were required to meet this guarantee, this would be “new, additional money beyond the £26.3 billion that the Government have already committed to science for the [Spending Review] period in question”,30 but was not able to tell us how much money this was expected to be:

We do not know whether there will be any shortfall, but there will be no dipping into the [science budget] ring fence. That is the commitment that has been made to the community.31

20.The Government has provided helpful reassurance to the science and research community by promising to underwrite the payment of EU grants extending beyond the point at which the UK leaves the European Union. However welcome this announcement is, it does not appear to represent a significant new financial investment, given that the EU itself apparently has a legal commitment to honour these payments. In Chapter 4 we note that the forthcoming Autumn Statement provides an important opportunity for the Government to demonstrate its commitment to making science and research a lynchpin of our economy after Brexit by taking steps towards increasing science spending as we have previously urged.

Communication strategy

21.Jo Johnson told us that the Government was “out of the traps extremely early, providing initial reassurance to the sector”, but acknowledged in July that “it is not enough just to put out a couple of initial statements. We realise we have to keep going and make sure that we continually reinforce the positive messages that we have started sending out”.32 He told us then that the Government wanted to put in place:

a comprehensive communications strategy to send out those kinds of message around the world—that we are more open and outward-looking than ever before, and that we want to forge international collaborations with European partners and countries beyond the European Union, now more than ever.33

22.In October we asked the Science Minister to update us on this communications strategy. He told us that there had been “public official communications that have been aiming to provide important reassurances on key areas of uncertainty”, citing announcements relating to loans and fees for EU students and the Treasury’s guarantees on payment of EU funding as “the key detailed crunchy elements of our comms strategy”.34 Alongside these, the Minister highlighted a “drumbeat of reassuring speeches” from Ministers “around the importance that we attach to our ability to continue to attract talent from around the world to sustain our science base”.35 He told us that he had held roundtable meetings with community representatives, including the university mission groups, to “reassure them that we are on the case, listening to their concerns and trying wherever we can to address them”.36

23.However, when we asked whether these messages were filtering down through the system following high-level meetings, he told us that “it is up to those representative bodies to decide how they communicate with their members. I imagine that they do”.37 We were also concerned by comments in the media that a “Government source” had described a recent report from the life sciences community as “basically the industry whining about Brexit, and it was not very constructive and has gone straight into the hopper”.38 Jo Johnson told us that he did not recognise this quote.39

24.The level of interest in our call for evidence—both in scale and the variety of organisations and individuals responding—demonstrates that there are many different audiences for a Government communications strategy, both at home and around the world. It is disappointing that this was not reflected in the Government’s oral evidence to us. There is more to be done to spread the messages of recent Government announcements before the communications strategy can be described as ‘comprehensive’. In this context, the communication of the policy is as important as the policy itself.

25.In the light of continuing uncertainty about the risks and opportunities for science following exit from the EU it is vital that the Government has a comprehensive communications strategy for this critical area. At the heart of such a strategy should be a clear understanding of the different audiences with which the Government should communicate, their existing levels of understanding, and the different forms of communication that will be most effective for each group.

26.We recommend that the Government present to us a genuinely comprehensive strategy for communicating its messages of ongoing support for science and research in the context of its plans for leaving the EU and the negotiations to follow. The strategy should be much more than a collection of high-level meetings and speeches within the UK, and should include an analysis of key audiences in other countries, such as researchers who could be encouraged to work here.

6 Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2015–16, The science budget, HC 340, para 1

7 Speech by Jo Johnson MP at the Wellcome Trust 30 June 2016, Leading the world in a new age of global science

8 Speech by Jo Johnson MP at the Wellcome Trust 30 June 2016, Leading the world in a new age of global science

9 European Commission (LEA 287)

10 “Funding support for EU students”, Department for Education press release, 11 October 2016

11 European Commission (LEA 287)

12 European Commission (LEA 287)

13 “Europe’s voyage towards an open global research area”, Carlos Moedas, European Commission, 25 July 2016

14 University of Liverpool (LEA 222) para 14. Similarly, the University of Leicester (LEA 179) para 3, told us it was aware of seven cases “either of research consortia breaking up, or researchers being unwilling to submit bids including British researchers”. Keele University (LEA 213) para 13 provided a named example of this, and Sheffield Hallam University (LEA 90) para 18 told us it was aware of three examples.

15 Scientists for EU (LEA 261)

16 Oral evidence taken on 19 October 2016, HC 275, Q189

17 Q190

18 “Europe’s voyage towards an open global research area”, Carlos Moedas, European Commission, 25 July 2016

19 Q190

20 Joe Gorman (LEA 75)

21 Q191

24 Q170

25 University of Portsmouth (LEA 251)

26 HM Treasury (LEA 286)

27 Q174

28 Q176

29 Q204

30 Q180

31 Q203

32 Q129

33 Q119

34 Q200

35 Q200

36 Q200

37 Q201

39 Q196

17 November 2016