The Implications of a (No-Deal) Brexit – Part 3: Research and Research Funding

(16-11-2020) In part 3 we examine what is going to change for Ghent University researchers regarding research and research funding after Brexit.

British universities and organizations participate in an estimated 12% of all European collaborations in which Ghent University is a partner. Only German partnerships with Ghent University number higher. Since it is still unclear whether the UK will join programmes such as Horizon Europe, the future of Belgian-British research projects is uncertain. We can, however, say with certainty that the project proposal landscape will be greatly changed in the future.

What do should Ghent University researchers take into account in 2021 with regards to research and research funding? A short overview.

Horizon 2020 & Horizon Europe

Background

Since Brexit is in essence an exercise of sovereignty, it will surprise no one that a great number of British political players are very sceptical towards European funding programmes such as Horizon Europe. Despite the UK enjoying a net financial gain with regards to their participation in Horizon – they receive more monetarily than they themselves contribute – many critics fear that Horizon primarily funds research that benefits the continent and that British interests are not sufficiently reflected in policy choices. Hardliners, of course, ignore that the monetary gains are only a small part of the bigger picture in research, a field in which networking, partnership-building and unexpected research opportunities make up the bulk of the actual profits.

The British are at odds with the idea that, despite being Europe’s top player in the field of higher education, its influence on Horizon policy is perceived as being inadequate due to the way the EU functions. In practice, however, there’s no denying that the UK has had a lot of influence on that policy, up to this very day. But Johnson’s political class cannot be swayed by subtle, implicit truths.

Regarding this issue, by the way, there’s an enormous incongruity between the viewpoints of the universities themselves (all pro-European and pro-exchange) and the politicians that are negotiating the deal (mostly anti-European and anti-exchange). The latter would much prefer a British alternative for which the policy would be an exclusively British affair: a prime example of island mentality.

Possibilities

To be clear, as a part of the transition agreement, the UK will continue to be treated as a regular member of the EU with regards to projects in H2020, no matter what. The way things are looking right now, the UK could choose to participate in Horizon Europe (H2020’s successor) under an association membership, much like Switzerland. Consequentially, the UK will be able to apply for funding from Horizon Europe, but only under conditions set exclusively by the EU. British policy makers will no longer be able to weigh in on the funding policies of Horizon Europe.

Current negotiations on the topic are made more difficult due to every other European country that enjoys association membership, such as Switzerland, not wanting worse conditions than the UK could get in a possible accord with the EU. Besides this, the UK obviously wants guarantees that the programme will not cost the UK more than it stands to gain. In trying to find a delicate balance between these considerations, the EU has its work cut out for it.

Another option the UK has, is to start a British replacement programme for Horizon 2020. There’s been talk for at least a year of the founding of a British Discovery Fund, modelled on the ERC, but this project has yet to take form. The Johnson cabinet has, however, expressed its determination to invest a great deal in research.

 (No-deal) Brexit Consequences

It goes without saying that a no-deal Brexit would introduce significant barriers to potential co-operations between British institutions and their European counterparts. A sign of the times is that a number of British universities are closing down their Brussels’s office due to them becoming redundant. On the other hand, many of those institutions are also opening up outpost universities on the continent in order to maintain an in and keep the door open for possible European funding, much like Ghent University has its Global Campus in Korea. Every British university is preparing for years of uncertainty.

New bilateral agreements will probably be made between the UK and the EU in 2021, but the road to those agreements will be long. This means that Ghent University researchers must be prepared for at least a year-long gap in European funding possibilities for research collaborations in which British institutions are a partner.

Despite the preparations being made by universities on both sides of the Channel, there is a distinct possibility that Ghent University researchers will have to choose between partnerships within the EU, which grant European funding; or with British institutions under different conditions in which the criteria, impact assessments, funding, etc. will no longer be coordinated between the different UK and EU-channels. What adds to the frustration, will be that choices will now sometimes have to be made between collaborating with a strong partner in the UK or with a (perhaps somewhat less strong) EU-partner who brings better funding possibilities to the table. Prior to Brexit, these types of choices had disappeared from the EU decades ago. Indeed, they were a large reason why higher education policy today is so closely coordinated at EU-level.

The British and Europeans will obviously be able to initiate collaborations within the framework of Horizon Europe again some time. As mentioned before, it is simply a certainty that there will be a gap which will take a while. This should not stop researchers from seeking out long-term collaborations, however. After all, academic institutions all over Europe have strongly expressed their support for continued exchange and co-operation.

In the meantime, this means that researchers in the EU and the UK in the near future will probably have to turn to two distinct sources for funding, a British source and a European source. Europeans will continue to be able to apply for funding from Horizon Europe and other European initiatives. But research collaborations with British institutes will have to be creative in order to be able to apply for that same support. Collaborations with outpost universities of British universities in Europe are a good example of this.

If the UK reaches an agreement with regards to the conditions of association membership of Horizon Europe, this means that they will agree with but not be able to weigh in on its research policies. They will invest in Horizon Europe and be able to apply for project funding in return. Such an agreement will stipulate that the UK will not have to pay more than it stands to gain. This will allow UK and EU-researchers to, once again, work together.

Are you an employee of Ghent University and do you have any questions regarding the impact of Brexit on research and research funding? Contact the Research Coordination Office at DOZA via AOC@UGent.be.