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Brexit and Horizon Europe – What is the price of uncertainty for the UK?

  • 5 January 2021
  • By Marco Cavallaro

This blog was kindly contributed by Marco Cavallaro, a Doctoral Student at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement clears the way towards UK post-Brexit access to Horizon Europe, the 9th EU research programme. Although the terms of association still need to be agreed upon, the Agreement confirms the political will on both sides to continue close scientific cooperation and puts an end to three-and-a-half years of uncertainty for UK-based researchers and their European peers.

In a paper published on Springer’s Scientometrics, we studied UK participation in Horizon 2020, the predecessor of Horizon Europe, during the climate of uncertainty induced by the 2016 Brexit vote. We compared the situation where UK researchers still had full access to the EU funding in all Horizon 2020 pillars to Switzerland’s EU funding access restrictions in the first years of the programme (from 2014 to 2016).

We concluded that the Brexit-induced uncertainty had a stronger negative impact on UK participation than the effective EU funding restrictions on Switzerland-based applicants. The negative effect on Swiss participation was alleviated by the Swiss Government’s commitment to fund all local participants and a lower degree of uncertainty when it came to future relations with the EU. The Swiss case can be seen as a short-term shock that was quickly absorbed by political diplomacyand did not escalate to questioning the overall relationship with the EU, unlike with Brexit.

To measure the effects of the Brexit vote on EU-UK research collaboration, we compared Horizon 2020 participation of UK higher education institutions and a sample of European higher education institutions that are the closest in size, reputation and experience in EU research projects. After the Brexit vote, we observed that the participation of the UK higher education institutions in, and coordination of, collaborative projects decreased to the benefit of the European higher education institutions in our sample.

When engaging in European networks, we assume that project participants seek guarantees of long-term returns, such as follow-up projects. We can argue that research consortia are less keen to collaborate with partners from countries where uncertainties are likely to affect research activities during and after the project.

Focusing on the leading position in EU collaborative networks, UK-based applicants themselves may have refrained from coordinating EU projects to avoid any administrative burden associated with the feared loss of eligibility for EU funding. Research consortia would also not take the risk of keeping UK partners in central roles to maximise their chances of getting funded.

Uncertainties related to immigration status and career perspectives seem to have negatively affected the UK’s attractiveness as a research destination for postdocs and EU doctoral networks, also to the benefit of their European peers. This is what we can infer from the comparison between UK and European participation in the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions, the Horizon 2020 mobility scheme.

The coming years will tell us whether the performance of UK higher education institutions in Horizon Europe will be affected by the UK decision of leaving the EU, despite the probable full access to the programme. This will also depend on how the British Government address pending uncertainties affecting research collaboration, including researchers’ mobility to and from the UK.

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