After Brexit, U.K. scientists face a long road to mend ties with Europe


After one referendum, two snap elections, and more than 3 years of dithering and debate, the United Kingdom this week will become the first country ever to withdraw from the European Union. But rather than marking the end of a process, Brexit will start another clock: an 11-month transition during which the U.K. and Europe will negotiate their future relationship on everything from trade to immigration to clinical trials. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Martin Smith, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity.

For researchers, the top issue is U.K. participation in Europe’s research program, Horizon Europe, which will run from 2021 to 2027. At about €90 billion, it is likely to be the bloc’s biggest ever. U.K. researchers now receive about £1.5 billion per year from the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020, and during the transition, they will get the remaining year of grant money owed under the scheme. To join Horizon Europe, however, the United Kingdom will have to pay to access it in the same way as 16 other non-EU countries, including Switzerland, Norway, and Israel.

Although U.K. and EU scientists both want such a deal, European politicians may use it as a bargaining chip in trickier negotiations, such as over border arrangements, says James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sheffield. “In what possible sense is it in [Europe’s] interest to stitch up a neat package on science and put a bow on it for London?” Indeed, the EU research commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, indicated in an interview this month that the European Union would not offer a separate deal on research.

If the United Kingdom is left out of Horizon Europe, the impact will be unequal, says Graeme Reid, a science policy researcher at University College London. Money from Horizon 2020 amounts to just 3% of total U.K. R&D spending overall, but in some disciplines, such as archaeology and software engineering, it is more than 30%. The loss of those funds “is going to make the research base in this country look like a Swiss cheese: It’s going to be solid overall but will have holes punched in it in unpredictable places,” Reid says.

In November 2019, the U.K. government released a report, co-authored by Reid, on options if it does not join Horizon Europe. The report called for mimicking some aspects of the European program—such as creating an organization that disburses long-term grants, like the European Research Council—but not all. “We think we should start again and optimize around U.K. interests,” he says.

Making sure EU scientists are free to live and work in the United Kingdom is also a priority, Smith says. “Mobility will be a big part of what we’re interested in in the next 11 months.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week announced new fast-track visas for researchers that will begin on 20 February. There will be no cap on them, and they will be managed by UK Research and Innovation instead of the Home Office.

Cat Ball, head of policy at the Association of Medical Research Charities, has concerns for the clinical trials her organization supports in the United Kingdom. Now that an exit deal is in place, she isn’t as worried as before about the delivery of experimental medicines for ongoing trials. But she fears Brexit’s long-term fallout will make the United Kingdom a less attractive place for clinical trials.

Much depends on whether the United Kingdom ends up outside a new European system for clinical trials that it helped shape. The system allows trial leaders to apply for approval only once, through a central portal, rather than through multiple national bodies. If the U.K. no longer participates, EU researchers may not want to include U.K. patients in pan-EU clinical trials, or may avoid leading trials in the nation, Ball says. “This extra layer of burden will disincentivize people,” she says.

Researchers also fear that the flow of data between the U.K. and Europe may be choked off. The European Union’s general data protection regulation, a 2018 law, allows data to be freely exchanged between the United Kingdom and other EU countries. Once the transition period ends, however, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers will have to declare U.K. data protection as “adequate” for free exchanges to continue. “If arrangements for that aren’t put in place by the end of the year, then lots of things will start to grind to a halt,” Smith says.

The U.K. government, meanwhile, has tried to allay researchers’ concerns by announcing its intention to increase spending on research to 2.4% of gross domestic product, putting U.K. spending near the top for developed countries. “We won’t know how much of this is theater over substance for a while,” Wilsdon says. The next budget, set to be announced on 11 March, will give a clearer sense of what will happen, he says. “If they start to really put proper extra money behind all of this rhetorical commitment, then that will further water down opposition and concern over the European funding question.”