The inevitable gravity of Brexit is squeezing UK scientists

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One of the most contentious parts of the tortuous post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and Europe has been the dispute settlement process. It is now being tested. Britain triggered the measure last week, complaining that the European Union has blocked its access to billions in science funding in retaliation for Britain’s plan to tear up parts of the trade deal for Ireland from the North Tito, meet Tat.

Time must tell you everything. The favorite to replace Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, is also in charge of Brexit matters. A fight with Brussels is a proven way to appeal to conservative voters.

As with the whole Brexit debacle, the dispute perfectly captures how the UK’s hardline approach quickly hits the wall of economic and political reality. In that case, the price for British scientists and researchers will be high: they risk losing access to the biggest science funding program of its kind, a nearly $100 billion pot called Horizon, along with a series of other research programs. like Euratom, which is dedicated to nuclear innovation; Copernicus, the Earth observation effort and space programs.

Officially, science has nothing to do with product controls in Northern Ireland. Unofficially, of course, everything is linked. The aim at the time of the UK-EU trade deal was for the UK to become an associate member of Horizon. But the EU kept the Horizon partnership agreement in place after the Johnson government declared its intention to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the divorce related to trade in Northern Ireland. The blog isn’t kidding either: it has previously excluded Switzerland from the funding program over other bilateral disagreements.

The dispute process triggers 30 days of consultation after which it would go to arbitration. If the EU is found to be in breach of the trade deal and does not comply, the UK can seek compensation; if the EU refuses to pay compensation, then the UK can seek specific trade remedies.

There are a number of potential exit ramps before you get to that. But as Zach Meyers, a senior fellow at the Center for European Reform, points out, much of the damage has already been done. While both sides are suffering from the drag of this dispute, it is the UK, as with most Brexit matters, that has the most to lose.

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

Brexit has already had a substantial negative impact on UK science. It has meant the departure of scientists and researchers who did not feel welcome or who had to move to the EU to guarantee access to funding. The UK’s annual share of EU research support fell by almost a third between 2015 and 2019. Before the Brexit referendum, the UK received 16% of Horizon grants in monetary terms ; in 2018, it was only 11%. About 115 Horizon grants were canceled in July because of the current row.

No problem, Johnson said; we will just replace the financing. Last month, the government released its Plan B, which suggests at least that the roughly 15 billion pounds ($17.7 billion) set aside for Horizon over the next decade will not be used for other pressing needs. The UK did something similar when it left the EU’s Erasmus student exchange program and created its own ‘Turing’ scheme.

And yet, in both cases, the British version is a poor substitute for the original. Meyers points out that while the UK was getting more out of Horizon in financial terms than it was putting in, it is the qualitative elements that mean the biggest loss. Horizon’s breadth and prestige meant many economies of scale, including lower overhead costs than stand-alone programs. New partnerships take time to establish and could be more complicated; Regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU facilitated collaboration in areas such as animal testing.

The UK has long been a laggard in R&D spending. And despite having some of the best research universities in the world, too little innovation seems to have been commercialized. It is also expensive for foreign researchers to obtain visas and move to the UK.

“It is in the UK’s interest that these appear to be alternatives to EU programmes, but the reality is that they are not,” says Meyers. A plan B is better than no plan. But to establish a unilateral scheme and say it is as good as a multilateral one would always require a greater leap of faith than the government has any right to expect. The UK can still participate in some programs on a ‘pay-to-play’ basis, which will only increase costs for less profit.

Once in office, if his favorite status is indeed confirmed, finding an exit ramp would be the wisest option for Truss. Now he can talk big to win votes, but securing an association agreement with the EU would do much more to demonstrate seriousness about productivity improvements and growth.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Britain’s would-be leaders are too easy on Brexit: Clive Crook

• Johnson is out, but the damage to the UK will last: Max Hastings

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

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

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

More stories like this one are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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