Hard Brexit ‘threatens scientific research’ at Scots universities

Carlos Moedas said UK participation in the flagship Horizon 2020 programme  hinges on the governments approach to immigration after Brexit
Carlos Moedas said UK participation in the flagship Horizon 2020 programme hinges on the governments approach to immigration after Brexit
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European research collaboration worth billions of pounds to UK universities “cannot exist” if free movement comes to an end under a ‘hard Brexit’, the European Commissioner for science and innovation has said.

Carlos Moedas, who begins a visit to Scotland today, said UK participation in the flagship Horizon 2020 programme that has pumped £210 million into Scottish universities hinges on the government’s approach to immigration after Brexit.

The UK government says it wants to take part in EU science programmes, but universities in Scotland and across the UK are growing increasingly alarmed at the lack of progress towards securing agreement, with talks in Brussels deadlocked over the UK’s “divorce bill”.

Academics face a December deadline to apply for the next round of European funding. However, amid growing speculation that talks could fail to reach any agreement, Mr Moedas also warned a no-deal scenario could see British researchers abruptly lose their funding and be forced off EU-backed projects.

“I am a strong believer in scientific collaboration and free movement. Good science cannot exist without these conditions,” Mr Moedas said.

“So I am very aware of the concerns of researchers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, including the major uncertainties that Brexit is causing.

“The Commission is doing its best to address these, within a very difficult political context. But we have no other choice than to note, also, that the UK – as to date – has been very clear that they intend to put an end to free movement. We cannot ignore this. Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations. This is largely in the hands of the UK.”

Prime Minister Theresa May has said the UK will leave the single market in March 2019, bringing the free movement of people from the EU to an end. Free movement was at the centre of a three-year row between the EU and Switzerland, which was part-suspended from the group of 14 non-EU countries that play a full part in Horizon 2020 and whose researchers and universities can receive European funding.

Hundreds of millions of euros worth of grants were put in jeopardy after a 2014 referendum which called on the Swiss government to negotiate its treaty with the EU that accepts free movement rules.

Switzerland was only readmitted to the group of ‘associate’ Horizon 2020 countries after ruling out any cap on migration from the EU in law.

“I am a strong believer in scientific collaboration and free movement. Good science cannot exist without these conditions,” Mr Moedas said.

“So I am very aware of the concerns of researchers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, including the major uncertainties that Brexit is causing.

“The Commission is doing its best to address these, within a very difficult political context. But we have no other choice than to note, also, that the UK – as to date – has been very clear that they intend to put an end to free movement.

“We cannot ignore this. Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations. This is largely in the hands of the UK.”

A growing number of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs are calling on the government to consider pulling out of the EU without a deal and begin making preparations for talks to fail.

Last week, the Commission warned British applicants for Horizon 2020 funds that under a no-deal Brexit, UK researchers on European projects “will cease to be eligible to receive EU funding… or be required to leave the project”.

“For the moment, nothing changes,” Mr Moedas said. “Until the UK leaves, its researchers, universities, organisations, and companies are eligible to participate and receive funding in Horizon 2020.

“But the eligibility criteria must be complied with for the entire duration of the grant. This is why it was important to be transparent and inform UK-based applicants now that if the UK withdraws from the EU without concluding a withdrawal agreement they may be required to leave the project and no longer receive funding.

“For projects for which the grant agreement is signed after the withdrawal takes effect, UK participants will be treated as entities established in a third country.

“Under Horizon 2020 rules, projects are open to participants from third countries, but only in addition to the minimum number of EU partners, and such third country participants would not normally receive funding.

“It is evidently too early to speculate on what could be the terms of UK entities’ participation to the EU programmes after withdrawal.”

Mr Moedas called on universities and academics to lobby the government to ensure that the UK is part of the successor to the Horizon 2020 programme, which runs to the end of the decade.

“The importance of science for our societies and economies has been a core value for Europe, the UK and Scotland,” he said. “So I deeply hope that our close partnership that has achieved so much will continue in some form, within the conditions to be achieved in the negotiations.

“I am coming to Scotland at a time when we start preparing a successor programme to Horizon 2020. I hope that the next framework programme will be larger, even more open and more ambitious.

“And my message to UK and Scottish researchers, universities and companies would be that they should engage with our work and help us form the best research programme the world has seen.

“They should also tell their politicians and those around Europe how important research and innovation is to the future of our continent as well as the world.”

SNP foreign affairs spokesman Stephen Gethins MP wrote to the UK Government last week calling for clarity on the UK’s future involvement in EU science programmes.

Mr Gethins said: “So far, the UK government has only confirmed that it will underwrite funding received through the research programme for projects confirmed before the UK leaves the EU – meaning that our universities could lose out on millions of pounds in funding after Brexit.

“The UK government’s plans for a hard Brexit and repeated threats of a no-deal scenario will hit Scotland disproportionately hard - with our world class research and innovation programmes potentially taking a big hit.”

Mr Moedas will today deliver a lecture the MacCormick European Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh today, on ‘The Future of EU Research and Innovation’.

Tomorrow he will take part in a roundtable discussion with leading Scottish innovators alongside Scottish Government business minister Paul Wheelhouse. He is also set to meet young pioneers from the robotics, renewable energy and space sectors who are based in Scotland.