The United Kingdom is one of the most important research partners in the EU. Scientists are accordingly concerned about Brexit – on both sides of the Channel. In his capacity as FNR Secretary General, Marc Schiltz discusses Brexit’s implications for European research.
There are areas where international cooperation at European level is complicated. Science is definitely not one of them. “Research was already globalised before the word globalisation even existed,” says Marc Schiltz, Secretary General of the FNR. The lively exchange between European scientists has a long tradition, Marc Schiltz adds. As one of the world’s leading research nations, this applies in particular to the United Kingdom. However, the head of the FNR sees this tradition threatened by the imminent Brexit.
Marc Schiltz, the result of the Brexit referendum surprised many – you too?
“Absolutely. On the day of the referendum I had a meeting in Brussels for Science Europe, an association of European research and research funding organisations. Our British colleagues were relatively optimistic that things would turn out well, even if they could be close. It was a bitter surprise for all of us the next day.”
Was it foreseeable from the very beginning what this would mean for research?
“I would say that the realisation came in two stages. The day after the referendum, people were already aware that Britain’s withdrawal would have an impact and would certainly make European cooperation in research more difficult. But they didn’t know what Brexit would look like at the time – and as I speak they still don’t really know. However, now there are at least some options – one of them is the hard Brexit, which would certainly be the worst option.”
Why would a hard Brexit be so bad for science?
“An essential point would be the end of European Union support. The EU has a very strong support programme, at the core of which is transnational cooperation. Almost all of these grants require that the application be submitted via a consortium of researchers from different countries.”
“British research is very well positioned internationally. It has a long tradition and is also strongly supported by the government. In terms of European funding programmes, the United Kingdom is currently the country that receives the largest percentage of European research funding.”
So British research would be cut off overnight if it came to a hard Brexit?
“If a hard Brexit were to occur at the end of March, EU funding to the United Kingdom would indeed be stopped immediately. But it is the case that the British Government has set up a guarantee fund. This fund regulates that in such a case the research funds come from national sources. That, however, is at best a temporary solution.”
So it is about money?
“It is mainly about international cooperation. Research funding catalyses this cooperation and the development of joint research projects. Saying that we will then be providing financial support is by no means the end of the story. The EU funding programmes as a whole have, in addition to the financial aspect, provided enormous support for inter-European cooperation. Brexit could do away with that. That is an enormous loss for the United Kingdom, but also for us and the other countries of the European Union.”
Why does it harm the other countries in the EU?
“Because British research is so strong and we would have to do without it if it came to a hard Brexit. It would not prevent us from continuing to work together, because there are also national funding instruments, such as the FNR here in Luxembourg – we also have a framework agreement with the UKRI, which would remain unaffected. However, the EU’s funding programmes are already very important.”
Are there no global funding programmes to support joint research between EU countries and the United Kingdom after a Brexit?
“There are, of course, global funding programmes from some institutions, but these are usually very specific. There are also bilateral agreements – we have one with the USA, for example. But to the extent that we receive research funding from the European Union, there is nowhere else.
“EU countries can join forces and apply for a project under the Horizon 2020 European framework programme. The Commission is insists that an exchange should also take place, for example that research should be carried out for a while at an institute in a partner country – that is quite unique in this form.”
What role does the United Kingdom play as a research partner for Luxembourg?
“A very important one. We currently have something like 285 projects with Luxembourg participation under the Horizon 2020 programme. And of these 285, 164 are projects in which partners from the United Kingdom are also involved, i.e. more than half. That shows the scale. In terms of the number of scientific publications with Luxembourg participation, the United Kingdom is the third most important research partner for us after France and Germany together with Belgium.”
Now, in the financial sector, other European cities are benefiting from Brexit because banks want to emigrate from the United Kingdom, including to Luxembourg. Could this not be similar in the area of research?
“In the financial sector as a whole, the situation is different. In the banking sector, there are a few prime locations in Europe and Luxembourg is one of them. Whereas there are around 4000 universities throughout Europe. And it will probably not be the case that researchers will then switch to three or four preferred locations. Maybe many of these locations will benefit a little, but none of them will really benefit substantially.
“Some British universities are already toying with the idea of opening branches in other EU countries in order to continue to distinguish themselves from the EU’s research framework programme.
“Time will tell whether the European Commission will tolerate such a thing. I have my doubts as to whether this is a way forward. Nor do I think that this can be a long-term solution.
“In my view, a good association agreement would be a more sensible solution – as in the case of Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU either. Through this association, it is possible to participate in the research framework programme. That, of course, is what we would all like to see for the United Kingdom. However, that is not being discussed at this stage. With a hard Brexit, I could imagine that nothing would come of it.”
So there is still much to be done. Is this uncertainty also felt among researchers?
“Yes, especially on the European level. Our colleagues in the United Kingdom are not optimistic. For them a hard Brexit would be the worst possible outcome. We are also getting enquiries from researchers who want to know what the cooperation will look like. Irrespective of the European framework programme, the FNR has an agreement with the British funding agency UKRI, and that remains unaffected. At least that is where we can reassure people.”
“What is most noticeable is the new projects whose applications are now being drawn up in order to submit them for funding. In view of the uncertainty, the question arises again and again to what extent British partners can now still be included in a project.”
So research is already slowing down across Europe because of Brexit?
“Absolutely. That is why it is extremely important that the question of association is answered as quickly as possible. But for that to happen, the question of Brexit must first be clarified. In any case, the result of the referendum was a disaster for research. It is a lose-lose situation, nobody wins.”
This interview was originally published on science.lu (in German)