Continued collaboration with the UK’s world-beating universities is a fantastic opportunity for the EU

Continued collaboration with the UK’s world-beating universities is a fantastic opportunity for the EU

The UK has today published its future partnership paper on collaboration on science and innovation with the EU after Brexit. Unlike many other aspects of the EU, its scientific collaboration procedures are efficient and unencumbered with political and institutional baggage, while its processes for ‘third country’ cooperation are also uncharacteristically streamlined, and it makes perfect sense for the UK to continue to engage as closely as possible with them once it also becomes a third country, as today’s paper sets out.

Continued close collaboration is a clear win-win for both sides, although the UK’s global pre-eminence in research make this an area where the EU has at least as much to gain as the UK. The timely release of the Times’ Higher Education World University Rankings this week not only put Oxford and Cambridge in the top two spots worldwide, but found that seven of the top eleven universities in Europe were in the UK, with two more in non-EU Switzerland and only two, Germany’s LMU Munich and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, in the EU.

The quality of the UK’s science output is unrivalled outside the United States, with the UK’s 125 Nobel Laureates surpassed only by the US, and the UK accounting for 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles, despite only having 0.9% of global population and 4.1% of researchers. Within the EU, the UK has accounted for almost 20% of the total research on EU health programmes over the last decade, while it is one of the top five scientific collaborators for each and every other EU state.

Britain continues to be the most active participant in the EU’s flagship Horizon 2020 programme, with the UK securing funding for 79 projects – more than any other EU state – even in the most recent round of funding announced just today. The Government has committed to underwrite any funding from Horizon 2020 for contracts awarded prior to Brexit to enable cross-border collaborations to continue unimpeded, even in the unlikely event that the UK and the EU are not able to reach agreement over the future shape of the UK’s direct involvement.

There are already 16 non-EU countries which participate in Horizon 2020 as associate members, from as far afield as Israel, Moldova and Tunisia. Associate members have slightly less influence over the overall direction of the programme but participate in funding arrangements in the same way as full members. Associate member status would enable the UK’s participation to continue essentially as it does now, although the UK would continue to carry an enhanced degree of clout due to its dominant scientific role globally.

Reports that the UK is a net recipient from Horizon 2020 are misleading at best – the money is UK taxpayers’ money in the first place, and selectively cherry-picking research funding from the rest of the EU budget obviously does not negate the UK’s overall £12bn annual net contributions. However, this is one area where the UK has indicated its willingness to continue making specific financial contributions, as do all other associate members who participate in the programme.

The UK also expressed its desire to continue its involvement in a wide range of other pan-European research projects, including non-EU projects such as the European Space Agency and CERN, as well as EU programmes on defence, space and nuclear R&D. The European Medicines Agency is set to move from London, despite the reluctance of its staff to leave, but the UK is seeking to work closely with it on an ongoing basis as a number of other regulators around the world already do.

The Royal Society, no great friend of Brexit, welcomed the Government’s paper, with its President, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, describing it as “very encouraging in both its tone and aspirations”, although he called for further progress on guaranteeing the immigration status of highly skilled EU researchers and certainty around Horizon 2020 funding.

Science has been an international endeavour for millennia, and deepening global cooperation will continue to drive it forward at an ever-increasing rate. Refreshingly, science stands out as one of the few areas where the EU has managed to set up smooth and effective mechanisms for cooperating with third countries while keeping onerous political and bureaucratic obligations largely out of the picture.

With the UK now calling for the EU to retain its access to the best universities in Europe, the best researchers in Europe and even the two best universities in the world, it’s an offer the EU would be mad to refuse.