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UK spells out post-Brexit science position

06 Sep 2017 Michael Banks
Photograph of the Joint European Torus
Euratom funded: the Joint European Torus

The UK government wants to agree a “far-reaching” science and innovation agreement with the European Union (EU) after the country leaves the bloc in 2019. In a “position paper” on science and innovation published today, the UK government states that science will be an important part of the UK’s future partnership with the EU, adding that it hopes to have a “full and open discussion” with the EU about a future collaboration.

The 16 page document says that the UK wants Europe to maintain its world-leading role in science and innovation, and will continue playing its part. “It is the UK’s ambition to build on its unique relationship with the EU to ensure that together we remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live,” the paper states.

On the Horizon

The biggest funding initiative in the EU is the €80bn Horizon 2020 programme, which runs from 2014 to 2020. The UK government has already stated that it will underwrite bids for Horizon 2020 projects submitted while the UK is a member of the EU. “The UK will work with the [European Commission] to ensure payments when funds are awarded, and Horizon 2020 participants should continue to collaborate as normal,” the paper states. Yet when it comes to Framework Nine – Horizon 2020’s successor – the document only says that future association “will be discussed”.

Another area of concern among researchers is the UK’s participation in the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). However, the paper only states that the UK will seek to “build on its extensive history of working with EU partners on nuclear research”, adding that “there is precedent for third-party involvement [via Euratom] in fusion research”.

Indeed, the Joint European Torus (JET) at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, is largely funded by Euratom. A contract to extend Euratom’s involvement in JET from 2018 to 2020 is still pending, and the document reiterates that if that goes ahead the UK government will underwrite its share of JET contract costs after it leaves the EU.

More to be done

While some have welcomed further clarity on the government’s position, some are concerned about the lack of details. “The document says many positive things,” notes John Womersley, director general of the European Spallation Source. “Aspiration of an ambitious science agreement between Britain and the EU is absolutely correct, but the paper is so lacking [in] implementation details that it will probably disappoint most of the science community rather than reassure.”

That view is backed up by Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, who says that the UK government needs to start making “firm commitments” on migration, regulation and scientific funding.

“It is welcome that the government are indicating that all options are on the table for continued scientific collaboration, including the potential for a bespoke agreement as an associated country,” she adds. “This softer approach to mutually beneficial arrangements beyond Brexit is made possible because of the high regard in which UK science is held and its strong research networks across Europe.”

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