The inevitable gravity of Brexit squeezes UK scientists

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One of the most contentious parts of the grueling post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and Europe has been the dispute settlement process. It is currently being tested. Britain launched the measure last week after complaining that the European Union had blocked its access to billions in science funding in retaliation for Britain’s plans to tear up parts of Northern Ireland’s trading arrangement. Meet Tit, Tat.

Time will tell everything. Liz Truss, the front-runner to replace Boris Johnson, is also in charge of Brexit affairs. Brawling with Brussels is a tried and tested way of appealing to Tory voters.

As with the entire Brexit debacle, the controversy perfectly captures how Britain’s hard-line approach quickly hits the wall of economic and political reality. In this case, the price for UK scientists and researchers will be high: they risk losing access to the biggest science funding program of its kind anywhere, a nearly $100 billion pot called Horizon, along with a range of other research programs. Such as Euratom, which engages in nuclear innovation; Copernicus, Earth observation efforts, and the space program.

Officially, science has nothing to do with product inspections in Northern Ireland. Informally, of course, it’s all linked. At the time of the UK-EU trade deal the aim was for the UK to become an associate member of Horizon. But the EU blocked the Horizon Association Agreement after Johnson’s government announced its intention to unilaterally rewrite the divorce terms related to trade in Northern Ireland. The bloc isn’t kidding, either — it has previously shut Switzerland out of funding programs over other bilateral disagreements.

The dispute process triggers a 30-day consultation and then it goes to arbitration. If the EU is found to be in breach of a trade agreement and does not comply, the UK can seek redress; If the EU refuses to pay reparations, the UK can pursue special trade remedies.

There are several possible off-ramps before this comes. But, says Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, much of the damage has already been done. While both sides have suffered from dragging out the dispute, it is the UK, as in most Brexit cases, that has the most to lose.

Funding from the Horizon program (the current incarnation, Horizon Europe, runs from 2021 to 2027) has led to advances in medicine, a better understanding of Covid-19, improvements in leukemia treatment and innovations in hydrogen cells to fuel zero-emission buses. , among other achievements. Before Brexit, more than a third of UK research papers were co-authored with European scientists. Association status will allow UK participants to apply for grants as EU applicants and lead international teams.

rexit has already had a substantial negative impact on UK science. This means the departure of scientists and researchers who feel unwelcome or need to relocate to the EU to ensure access to funding. Between 2015 and 2019, the UK’s annual share of EU research support fell by almost a third. Before the Brexit referendum, the UK was receiving 16% of the Horizon grant in monetary form; By 2018, it was only 11%. Some 115 grants from Horizon were closed in July because of the current row.

No problem, Johnson said; We will simply replace the funds. Last month, the government rolled out its Plan B, which suggests that around £15 billion ($17.7 billion) earmarked for Horizon over at least the next decade will not be funneled into other essential needs. Britain did the same thing when it left the EU’s Erasmus student exchange program and created its own “Turing” scheme.

And yet in both cases, the UK version is a poor substitute for the original. Meyers noted that the UK was getting more off the horizon than in fiscal terms, with qualitative elements pointing to a bigger deficit. Horizon’s sheer breadth and reputation means many economies of scale with less overhead than standalone programs. Establishing new partnerships takes time and can be more complicated; Regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU facilitated cooperation in areas such as animal testing.

The UK has long lagged behind in research and development spending. And despite some of the world’s top research universities, very few innovations seem to be commercialized. It is also expensive for foreign researchers to get visas and travel to the UK.

“It is in the UK’s interest to pretend that these are alternatives to EU programmes, but the reality is they are not,” says Meyers. A plan B is better than no plan. But to establish a unilateral plan and say it is as good as multilateral requires a leap of faith greater than the right of the government to expect. The UK may still participate in some programs on a “pay-to-play” basis, which increases costs for less benefit.

Once in office, if indeed her frontrunner status is confirmed, seeking an off-ramp would be a wise choice for Truss. She may talk tough now to win votes, but a deal with the EU will do much to show she is serious about productivity improvements and growth.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Aspiring UK leaders too calm on Brexit: Clive Crook

• Johnson out but damage to UK still lingers: Max Hastings

• Here’s one Brexit promise Boris Johnson can’t keep: Vince Cable

This column does not reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist covering health care and British politics for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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