11 June 2018

Building a strong future for European science: Brexit and beyond

Decades of cooperation have made Europe a great place for research. But as science and politics change, we need to adapt to keep up. Europe must work together to secure our global scientific leadership. As Wellcome heard at our summit of European research leaders recently “research is the only way to maintain our standard of living”.

Although Europe is home to world-leading universities, and our researchers produce over a third of the world’s scientific publications, we can’t take our competitiveness for granted. A quarter of the world’s STEM graduates come from China, while their investment in research is growing three times faster than the EU’s. Europe also struggles to put the D into R&D. Korean businesses invest twice as much in research and innovation; America has five times more billion dollar start-ups.

Meanwhile, Brexit presents choices about how the UK and EU should collaborate on research in the future. So how do we move forward, together?

Building on positive statements from the EU and UK, Wellcome’s report Building a strong future for European Research: Brexit and Beyond outlines our recommendations for EU/UK science post-Brexit. Our work was informed by what we heard from consultation across Europe, in partnership with the Royal Society.

A bolder vision for the European Research Area (ERA)

The ERA makes a real impact on European lives. Together, the research community have an opportunity to accelerate its development, and capitalise on more countries’ expertise. Greater ambition for the ERA, bringing in wider ideas, can help us reach our target of 3% GDP spend on research faster, bring down more barriers to researcher movement, and speed-up progress on major challenges like antimicrobial resistance.

But delivering this vision needs concrete support. Member States and those outside the EU will need to invest more to achieve these goals. This should prompt the EU to review how other nations participate in EU research, giving them more say in the ERA’s development. A short-term way to achieve this could be a mixed Schengen-style committee, where non-EU countries participate in Council discussions on research, but without a vote. Longer-term, we can be even bolder, bringing in ideas from outside Europe’s borders to cement our global leadership.

Research and Innovation after Brexit

We must also address specific issues posed by Brexit. Issues that should be addressed soon, in an early deal for science.

Working together is key to Europe’s global competitiveness. Associated Country status is the best way for UK to participate in European research, as EU funding is integral to the UK system. It also delivers for the EU, maintaining access to British expertise and institutions.

UK based researchers need access to all themes, calls and pillars. The Research Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, has welcomed UK participation but recognises that the existing terms for association might not work. Association agreements are already diverse, with varying degrees of mobility and regulatory alignment from Iceland to Israel, Ukraine to Turkey. This can help the EU be flexible over terms for the UK.

Providing certainty on UK access to Framework Programme 9 is vital for UK researchers and their European collaborators. The UK should look at all the benefits of participation when considering the cost of access. Even as a small net contributor, FP9 is a great deal. The UK should show its intent by engaging fully and constructively in the programme’s development.

The UK and EU must continue to cooperate on pre-competitive research regulation. European values are at the heart of how we do research, helping us lead the way in rules that protect individuals, the environment, and animal welfare. A research agreement should maintain the free flow of personal data for research, and allow UK patients to benefit from innovation in the EU’s clinical trial system. Together, we can also lead the world on science policy, whether that’s Open Science, diversity or developing young researchers.

Finally, science is built on mobility over the short- and long-term. Researchers travel for conferences and placements, and frequently move between labs, often with their families and teams. There is overwhelming consensus across Europe that this must continue. In a poll of 15 European nations, 70% of people supported high-skilled migration to their country. Through the ERA there must be a simple and quick approach to full researcher mobility.

UK-EU partnerships are critical to Europe’s place as a world-leading location for research. International collaboration is more than the sum of its parts; improving this collaboration is central to the ideas that improve lives.


Sam Alvis

Policy Officer, Wellcome Trust