EU referendum: the impact on Horizon 2020 participation for the UK

With the Prime Minister announcing that the referendum on Britain’s EU membership will be held on 23 June, attention has now turned to the impact so-called Brexit might have on UK business and the economy.

Although collaborative research and innovation undertaken with EU partners is unlikely to garner the same level of public interest as say immigration or sovereignty, for businesses and universities up and down the country the issue of the UK’s future involvement in the flagship EU Horizon 2020 programme is crucial.

The UK has historically done pretty well in terms of its share of EU research and innovation funding, being second only to Germany in the last EU Framework Programme (FP7) by receiving €6.8bn in funding compared to Germany’s €7bn.   The UK, which accounts for 12% of the total EU population, received 16% of the FP7 funding.

So how will the result of the referendum impact on Britain’s role in the current Horizon 2020 programme, which has an even larger budget than FP7 at €79 billion over 7 years?

MSC R&D’s EU expert Huw Edwards believes there is little cause for alarm – whatever the result.   According to Huw, “in case of a vote to leave, I don’t think anything will happen too rapidly.  We’re fully signed up to Horizon 2020 so there are still 4 years to run.  Given that the UK is a net beneficiary from the Framework/Horizon programmes I suspect we’d want to continue our involvement as an associate state, as Norway; Iceland and Israel do today”.

Things would get more complicated however if our attempts to become an associate state were thwarted.  An interesting example of where things can go wrong occurred last year when the European Commission suspended Switzerland’s full participation in Horizon 2020 in February 2015 after a referendum led to the country blocking immigration from the EU’s newest member, Croatia.  This effectively ended international scientific collaboration with the rest of Europe, causing chaos for scientific research in Switzerland with the Swiss government having to spend huge sums to keep things going.

“In a nutshell, Switzerland now pays more to get less, co-ordinates almost nothing internationally, and has no control over its scientific budget or which topics to fund,” according to Claire Skentelbery, of the European Biotechnology Network, quoted in the Independent Newspaper.

The Swiss did obtain a partial reprieve towards the end of last year when they were once again allowed to join Horizon 2020 projects as if they were EU citizens. However, they are only allowed full access to the first pillar of Horizon 2020, “Excellent Science” and Switzerland is still prohibited from participating as an associate country under the second pillar, “Industrial Leadership” (worth €17b) and the third pillar, “Societal Challenges” (worth €29.7).  For these schemes Switzerland will still be treated as a third party country, like the United States.

The Switzerland example sounds very similar to the arguments being put forward by the “Yes” campaign, such as being inside the “European Club” gives us a better chance to influence things rather than being on the outside.  “No” campaigners would probably counter that the rest of Europe needs access to the UK’s world-leading science and research base, making a beneficial deal for the UK an inevitability.

MSC R&D will follow the campaign with interest.