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By Andrew Tanner-Smith on 19/09/23

In late 2023, years after the decision has been implemented politicians, economists and newspaper columnists of competing persuasions continue to champion or, worse, ignore, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) in the referendum. At one “coalface” a group of people affected directly by the decision battles almost daily to regain ground up until that June 2016 moment, they thought was secure,

What scientists were promised in the run-up to the referendum was that the UK’s position in the EU innovation funding programme, Horizon, would be protected regardless of the outcome. As with many of the Leave campaigns’ promises however, this was to prove inaccurate.

As a result, although the UK government has half-heartedly flirted with the idea of building its own innovation programme its research community currently finds itself in an invidious position losing vital funding from the EU and finding very little comfort from HMG that the situation will improve any time soon.

However, as we detail below, the damage done to the UK’s innovation infrastructure goes far beyond the material loss of funding. Along with that loss, comes the reputational damage caused to the UK as a magnet for the brightest minds in the world; systematic damage to its universities as hubs for scientific research and innovation; and damage to its proposition for home-grown academics who would otherwise stay and encourage the next of generation of researchers leave the country to find funding elsewhere.

Among all the impacts Brexit has had on the UK economy arguably the felt has been the UK's loss of access to Horizon Europe, the EU's flagship research and innovation program. Its worth spending a few words here to answer the "so what" question. Why is Horizon Europe a big deal for the UK.

Horizon Europe provides a financial lifeline for diverse research projects, spanning from fundamental research to applied innovation. It is in this first category, fundamental research, that the importance of Horizon Europe is most obvious. Fundamental research often referred to as blue skies research is highly speculative. It is painstaking, can be laborious, repetitive and ultimately may produce nothing of any value. This kind of research is unattractive to private companies as its shareholders require returns for their investments. It is let to governments generally to fund this type of research.

And historically the UK has been very good - no - very, very good at attracting research money, because, historically we have been very good at it. In all other regards, such as agricultural subsidies, transport development, regional regeneration programmes, and foreign aid, the UK was by far a net contributor to the EU. However, in science and innovation, through the Horizon Europe programme, the UK secured more than a substantial slice of the funding pie, receiving over €9 billion from the previous Horizon - Horizon 2020 - programme.

To be fair, Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit Government did succeed in gaining associate membership of Horizon Europe, but the relationship has since run into difficulty, primarily because of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The EU suspended the UK’s associate membership of the programme was until it had resolved the issue. However, whilst the Windsor Agreement in March 2023 solved the issue, progress in restoring the UKs associate membership has been slow and only now, 6 months later, does it look to be back on track. The effects of the UKs absence from the programme are stark. European Commission figures suggest a dramatic fall awards to British science programmes in recent years. In 2019 €959.3m (£828.8m) in Horizon 2020 funds grants went 1,364-UK based researchers, compared with €22.18m in 192 grants in 2023 so far. The statistics from the European Commission show that Cambridge University, which was awarded funding of €483m (£433m) over the seven years of the last European research funding programme, Horizon 2020, has not received any funding in the first two years of the current Horizon Europe programme. Meanwhile, Oxford, which won €523m from the earlier programme, has received just €2m to date from Horizon Europe.

The UK's renewed association agreement with the EU means that UK institutions and researchers can apply for funding from Horizon Europe. HMG also states that has secured a new deal which means that it does not need to pay for the period in which it was excluded from the programme and that the UK will have a new automatic clawback that “protects the UK as participation recovers from the effects of the last two and a half years. It means the UK will be compensated should UK scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme. This was not the case under the original terms of association.”

 Whilst ministers are keen to talk up these financial compensations, there are several issues its less keen to draw attention to. As an associate country to the programme, the UK will be competing with institutions from fifteen other associated countries, including Norway, Israel, and Iceland for funding.

There are fears that even with the UK’s associate membership restored the ability of its institutions to keep their home-grown talent, let alone attract the world’s best talent is irreparably damaged. There is evidence already that some of the UKs best scientists are looking beyond UK institutions to EU-based universities to secure funding. Additionally, some researchers have already reported feeling discouraged from pursuing research in the UK due to the uncertainty caused by Brexit, showing that a brain drain may already be occurring. The University of Oxford experienced a 20% decrease in EU researcher applications in the year following Brexit, a loss it has not recovered. Brexit has also affected the number of EU students enrolling in UK universities. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures show that the number of EU students enrolling for the first year of an undergraduate or postgraduate course was down from 66,680 the year before Brexit came into force, 2020, to 31,000 in 2021, the first year the UK treated EU students as those coming from China or India. This represents a loss of income from international students that is devastating higher education in the UK.

Brexit has significantly inflated the cost of cross-border collaborations for UK researchers. These augmented expenses stem from various sources, including immigration hurdles, visa requirements, and customs clearance. The added financial burden may deter UK researchers from fostering and sustaining international partnerships, ultimately hindering their research pursuits.

Brexit's impact extends to the mobility of scientists and researchers between the UK and the EU. Stringent immigration rules now apply to EU citizens residing in the UK, making it harder for them to work and potentially deterring them from bringing their families along. This impediment could hamper UK universities' efforts to attract and retain talented scientists and researchers from the EU.

Historically, the UK has punched well above its weight in terms of innovation. From the industrial revolution to the discovery of Graphene the UK has attracted and maintained a very high rate of rate of quality innovation. However, the once secure foundations upon which the country has relied to build its reputation are crumbling, despite today’s announcement. The collective consequences of losing access to Horizon Europe: funding, reputational harm, elevated collaboration costs, and reduced researcher mobility have cast a dark shadow over UK innovation that could be terminal.

Let’s not downplay the renewed access to Horizon Europe. Access to the programme is an existential issue for UK innovation and we can only welcome the news and breathe a sigh of relief. But it really is the bare minimum of what needs to be done to resurrect the UK as a world class pace to innovate.

Here is what the UK government needs to do right now to correct the situation.

Far, far, far greater Government funding for blue skies research.

Yes, we’ve heard UK government promises of bolstering research and innovation funding, but sustained and much increased investment is essential. For this there needs to be a strong science lobby leaning on the government at every opportunity to make the case for funding, Ministers, especially those that hold purse strings need to understand the role of science and innovation. We cannot rely on a handful of innovative companies in a small range of science-based industries to invest in blue skies research. Their shareholders will want to see returns for their money. The nature of fundamental scientific research funded by Horizon Europe does not guarantee the returns the shareholders of public companies need to justify the immense costs of this type of research.

Better opportunities for mobility

Streamlining immigration processes for scientists and researchers, both incoming and outgoing, can facilitate international collaborations. Again, the Government have made strides in this. The fast track and lower threshold visa scheme for scientists is helpful, but there needs to be more “pull” for the UK to attract this type of talent.

Investing in Skills and Training

Nurturing UK talent pool through education, skills development, and training programs is pivotal. Its not just about the bright minds who can lead research programmes, identify the right people, and build the right environments for good innovation. It’s the support staff, researchers, support staff, HR, librarians, technicians.

Politicians and newspaper columnists will be at pains to argue that none of the changes to the UK’s higher education landscape and its ability to compete for talent and funding on an international level can be placed solely on the UKs decision to leave the EU. But that is not the point. The facts are that now, in 2023, UK research institutions are not attracting nearly the same amount of talent or funding than it did prior to 2016.

Today’s announcement of the UK’s re-admittance to the Horizon Europe programme will be much vaunted by the Government and its sympathetic press. But it is just a small step which doesn’t even begin to make up for the damage that has already occurred to British innovation.