Brexit and Scientific Collaboration

Will UK participation in European Union programs disappear when the UK leaves the EU?

01 January 2017
Keith Lewis

The UK’s June 2016 referendum approving withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the so-called Brexit vote, has had a significant impact across the globe. While currency exchange rates fell instantly and have been slow to recover, share prices recovered quickly and the FTSE indexes stand, at the time of this writing in November 2016, at levels that are among the highest recorded in the past decade.

Nevertheless, there has been considerable concern in the scientific community about the likely effect on the mobility of scientists and collaborative activity, especially about the extent to which the UK can enjoy access to the EU’s flagship Horizon 2020 (H2020) program.

This prompted the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to initiate a formal inquiry immediately following the vote to gather evidence from the community on the likely impact of Brexit. This included over 270 separate inputs from members of academia and industry. The committee’s deliberations were summarized in a report, “Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research,” published on 16 November.

The House of Lords also debated the impact of Brexit on universities and scientific research on 3 November.

On 13 August, Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, issued a statement to the effect that the Treasury will provide a guarantee, underwriting H2020 awards granted before the UK’s departure from the EU, even where specific projects continue beyond that date. While this was a welcome statement, it fell short of addressing longer-term concern about the likely impact of Brexit.

Then, on 3 October, Hammond announced a further £220m of support for technology innovation, including an additional £120m to help transform research at universities and institutions into viable business ventures.

Prime Minister Theresa May, sending a strong signal that the UK is determined to be a leading innovative nation, followed this by announcing on 21 November that the UK planned to invest an additional £2 billion annually on research and development by 2020 and that there will be a focus on robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology.


It is clear that a number of key issues need to be addressed as the UK moves forward in negotiations to determine its role in relation to Europe. There are undoubtedly benefits to be gained from participation in EU R&D programs, but there are also significant challenges, especially in the management of intellectual property, the bureaucracy of the bidding process, and the success rates in winning financial support.

Criticisms have also been made about the emphasis on supporting proposals on the basis of building networked communities rather than on the quality of the underlying science and technology. In the area of oncology research, Angus Dalgleish, a physician and professor of oncology at St. George’s University of London, has also criticized the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive, which he said introduced onerous regulatory hurdles that hampered academic-led studies. Brexit means the UK can now revive clinical trials that were regulated out of existence by the EU directives, he wrote in the London Daily Telegraph.

On the other hand, it is important that avenues for effective collaboration remain open. Suitable measures will also have to be provided to ensure the proper movement (mobility) of researchers between nations (not just those in the EU), as required for the support of collaborative activity within individually funded programs.

Some argue that the potential economic benefits of Brexit are substantial. Nigel Lawson, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1983 to 1989, recently wrote about how “appallingly costly” it has been to have the UK’s financial contributions to the EU “recycled.”

“I am constantly astonished to hear representatives of British universities, whom one would expect to be reasonably intelligent, bemoaning the prospective loss of EU money. There is no EU money,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “It is British taxpayers’ money, recycled via the EU.”

If sterling remains at its current depressed level, there would certainly be benefit in increasing the role that UK scientists could play in EU-funded programs, since UK scientists would be cheaper to employ.

A comparison of UK contributions to the EU (green) with EU FP7 expenditure in the UK for each year, 2007 to 2013. Data extracted from UK Office of National Statistics and EU official tables.

In the UK, the largest funder of R&D has historically been the business sector. In 1996, business funding corresponded to some 47% of gross domestic expenditure on R&D activity (GERD), compared with 16% supported from overseas funds, according to the Office for National Statistics. By 2014, the business share had increased to 48% of the £30.6 billion GERD, whereas the overseas contribution had increased to 18%.

Significantly, the business sector is also the largest performer of R&D in the UK, at a level of 65% of the total.

During the EU’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7), UK institutes benefitted increasingly from the receipt of EU grants as the flow of funding shifted away from direct UK government provision.

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed £4.45 billion (about €5.4 billion) to the EU R&D budget. In comparison, the EU’s declared spending on FP7 programs in the UK for the same time period was €5.72 billion. (Note that this level of expenditure is different than the benefit gained from signed grant agreements worth €6.94 billion over the same period.)

While there were also contributions to R&D from the EU Structural and Investment Fund, a House of Lords report in April 2016 found it challenging to determine the exact level of EU spending on R&D in the UK. Nevertheless, the reported contribution from R&D structural funds provided to the UK (about €1.91 billion) fell short of that provided to Portugal (€4.52 billion), Germany (about €4.94 billion), Spain (€5.56 billion), Italy (about €6.07 billion), and Poland (more than €9.3 billion).

By 2014, Britain’s annual contribution to the EU’s Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) budget had grown from £374 million in 2007 to £638 million, according to government reports.


Since EU funding in the UK is largely concentrated in universities, it has an impact on student and staff levels. For the 2014/15 admissions year, some 5% of full-time undergraduates were of non-UK, EU origin, according to MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, in written evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee in July 2016. For postgraduates, the ratio was 11.6%. The number of students participating in the EU Erasmus exchange program has been increasing, with those coming to the UK exceeding the corresponding number of UK students studying elsewhere in Europe.

The impact on staffing has also been significant, with 15% of university research staff across the UK having origins in other EU nations. In comparison, some 13% of UK academic staff are nationals of other countries, according to HESA, which collects and analyzes data about higher education in the UK.

Between 2007 and 2014, the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions supported 3454 UK-based researchers to move within the UK, to other EU countries, and to non-EU countries. This scheme also funds researchers to come and work in the UK. For example, around 800 Chinese nationals were supported to work in the UK, complementing the 850 or so UK-based researchers who were funded to work in China.

UK researchers collaborate on a global basis, and on the basis of the number of papers coauthored with UK-based authors between 2005 and 2014, the direction is not solely on the European axis, as shown in the chart below.

Top collaborative partners for UK researchers from 2005 to 2014, based on the number of papers coauthored with UK-based researchers. (*denotes EU member nations.)
Credit: Royal Society

The shift of emphasis toward seeking funding from the EU’s Framework Programs and H2020 has not come without its penalty, notably the need to identify multiple partners for collaboration elsewhere in Europe and the complexity and cost associated with the preparation of winning proposals.

Indeed, for many small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the cost of preparing a high-quality proposal (requiring some three or more months of effort) is not a sensible business proposition, especially considering the low achievable success rate.

To illustrate this, in the first 100 calls for proposals to H2020 in 2014, only 4315 of the 31,115 full proposals submitted were retained for funding. The largest share came from the university sector, although some 86% of their applications were rejected. The UK submitted the largest number of eligible applications (about 11.4% of the total) but fell behind eight other nations in the ranking of overall success rates.

Significantly, the UK’s success rate had also fallen from the levels achieved in FP7. In the case of SMEs, only 38 submissions out of 960 proposals were selected in 2015 for support under phase two of the EU’s Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) instrument. Only three UK SMEs were funded, attracting 9% of the budget. In comparison, Italian and Spanish SMEs together accounted for 19 out of the 38 funded proposals, gaining 47% of the available budget.


For SMEs and industrial organizations, the ownership of intellectual property (IP) is paramount if they are to achieve commercial success in the technology arena. Managing IP within H2020-supported projects can be a challenge, however.

The general rule is that each participant in a H2020 project owns the results it generates, but it must provide royalty-free access rights to other participants when needed to exploit the results of the project. An SME, however, may not want to risk weakening its IP position under that scheme, since it may discourage potential investors.

In any scientific program, there are benefits to be gained from collaboration, especially when it is necessary to access specific technical expertise or specialist facilities. While the accepted direction is on seeking partners within the EU’s own communities, which tends to result in commercial exploitation that is inward looking within the Union, we must recognize the role that other nations can make to H2020 activities.

In its first 100 signed grant agreements, there were participants from 73 different countries, demonstrating the global reach of the H2020 program. The USA alone, which has a bilateral agreement with the EU, has been involved in 911 eligible proposals.

So in a post-Brexit world, opportunities for UK participation in EU programs should continue to exist, provided that an acceptable basis for supporting collaboration can be negotiated. And on a global stage, UK universities, like their US counterparts, will be able to attract students and staff on a much wider basis, exploiting their leading positions in the world.


The UK Parliament has established an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on photonics to have regular discussions with members of the optics and photonics community in the UK.

The Parliament has several hundred APPGs, informal cross-party groups that provide an opportunity for members of Parliament to engage with individuals and organizations from outside Parliament on a topic of mutual interest.

Parliament Member Carol Monaghan, a member of the Science and Technology Committee, will chair the new APPG on photonics. Other MPs involved include Chris Green as secretary of the group and Stephen Pound and Mims Davies, who will serve as vice chairs.

John Lincoln of UK Photonics will be the main contact between the photonics community and APPG members.

Organizations that want to participate in an early 2017 launch event should contact Lincoln.


SPIE will host a panel discussion at 3:30 pm Tuesday 31 January 2017 during SPIE Photonics West on managing the possible impact of recent political changes in science and technology.

The panel will be moderated by John Dexheimer, a venture capital and private equity analyst, and include experts in business acquisitions, financing, exports, and management.

"The goal is not to debate or guess at public policy," Dexheimer says, but to address what a CEO, board member, or senior executive in a photonics firm should be doing over the next one to two years to deal with possible impacts.

Panelists will offer advice on how a local or foreign firm can take advantage of program funding opportunities and venture capital.

  • More information on the panel and other industry events during SPIE Photonics West.

SPIE Fellow Keith Lewis is director of Sciovis (UK) and a member of the UK Photonics Leadership Group. SPIE Fellow Keith Lewis is director of Sciovis (UK) and a member of the UK Photonics Leadership Group. He is a former research director of the UK Electromagnetic Remote Sensing Defence Technology Centre (EMRS DTC) and previously a Senior Fellow and technical director at QinetiQ. A recent member of the SPIE Board of Directors, Lewis is chair of the SPIE European Advisory Committee and a member of the SPIE Engineering, Science, and Technology Policy Committee and the Symposia Committee. He has a PhD in physical chemistry from Bristol University.

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