Brexit experiment will fail UK science. Here’s why

by Rachel Dobbs | 08.02.2019

The scientific community has been clear: Brexit is an experiment they don’t want to carry out. Researchers are overwhelming pessimistic about the impact leaving the EU will have on their fields, surveys show.

Much of this fear is catalysed by the risk leaving poses to UK participation in Horizon, the EU’s mammoth funding programmes for research and innovation. In response, politicians have tried to promise that Brexit will free up money for UK research, that it would shore up current funding, and that the UK can compete for future grants. All these hypotheses can be debunked, and no-deal makes things even worse.

What does the UK give to EU research funding, and what does it get back?

In general, the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget – between 2007 and 2013, for example, the country contributed £68.2 billion to the EU and received £41.7 billion in EU funding.

However, the situation is different for science. National contributions to the EU are not itemised, but the Office of National Statistics estimates that, over the same 2007 – 2013 period, the UK contributed £4.7 billion to EU research and development and received £7.7 billion in funding in return. Since Horizon 2020 funding began in 2014, UK universities have received more than £9.7 billion. Scientists have directly received around £4.4 billion.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

Click here to find out more

What will happen to current Horizon 2020 funding?

Horizon 2020, the EU’s current £70 billion programme of research funding, will run until (you guessed it) 2020. The government has repeatedly promised that it will underwrite UK Horizon 2020 projects, so they can compete for and secure funding until the end of 2020. It told the public that, even under a no-deal, the UK could still access Horizon 2020 funding as a “third country”.

The problem is that “third country” participation isn’t remotely equivalent to the UK’s current position. Third countries are explicitly excluded from three Horizon 2020 funding streams:  

These make up 45% of the amount Britain has already received from Horizon 2020, and would represent a loss of at least £506 million a year. British scientific leadership would be threatened too: fewer than 10 of the 20,000 signed contracts for Horizon 2020 are led by third countries.

What about future Horizon Europe funding?

From 2021, Horizon 2020 will be replaced by Horizon Europe, which runs until 2027. This is an even more ambitious programme, worth £87 billion, and one of the largest initiatives for scientific research funding in the world. Again, no-deal apologists have sought to reassure researchers that the UK can participate as a third country. Also again, this promise is not all it’s cracked up to be. Horizon Europe is more open to associate membership from third countries than its predecessor. But without full membership, the UK will have less influence over the policy and direction of the programme, and will likely be limited in that it can only access as much funding as it contributes.

Throughout 2019, European officials will be deciding how to divvy up Horizon funding over the next nine years. With Brexit distracting us, and no-deal looming, the UK’s chance of a positive result slips further and further away.

This article has been corrected since publication. Horizon Europe is worth £87 billion, not £77 billion as originally stated.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe