Lord Jay: We must stay participate in EU research and innovation programmes post-Brexit

Posted On: 
18th February 2019

The UK should continue to take part in the EU’s Erasmus and Horizon programmes after leaving the European Union, writes Lord Jay 

If the Government cannot secure continued access to Erasmus and Horizon, it will be essential to establish alternative UK research and mobility schemes, writes Lord Jay
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Towards the end of 2018, the EU Home-Affairs Sub-Committee launched an inquiry to explore the implications of Brexit for UK participation in the EU’s flagship programme for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, and its international mobility programme, Erasmus+, which provides opportunities for young people and teaching staff to study, work, and train abroad.

The inquiry found – no surprise perhaps – that the UK is a respected and important partner in both these programmes. It is a popular destination for mobility placements and a world leader in research, with an exceptionally strong science base. Participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 provides clear benefits to the UK, including funding and access to networks, connections, and opportunities to collaborate with European partners built over decades of close cooperation.

If the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, UK participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 would continue largely unchanged until both programmes draw to a close at the end of 2020.

But if we leave without a deal, it could be trickier. The Government is seeking to preserve access to both programmes in a ‘no deal’ scenario and has issued a guarantee to underwrite funding for UK participants in Erasmus and Horizon projects until the end of 2020. However, there is an urgent need for greater clarity on how this guarantee would work in practice.

The Government must also explain how it would replace major research funding schemes not covered by the guarantee: the European Research Council grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which account for 44% of total UK receipts from Horizon 2020. Our report highlights case studies of life-changing research projects funded by these schemes, including an international research network that develops more efficient, less toxic therapies for treating childhood cancers, and a collaborative project between academia and industry undertaking ground-breaking research on a treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Whatever the circumstances of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it is in our mutual interest to preserve current close levels of cooperation on research and innovation and international mobility. The UK should therefore negotiate association agreements to the successor Erasmus and Horizon programmes (running from 2021 to 2027), which ensure full access to EU research and mobility funding schemes and allow UK organisations to participate in, and lead, international collaborative projects.

If the Government cannot secure continued access to Erasmus and Horizon, it will be essential to establish alternative UK research and mobility schemes. However, it would be a formidable challenge – and risky – to try to replicate at a national level the substantial benefits of the EU’s programmes.

In evidence to our inquiry, the Government acknowledged that the value of the Erasmus programme, and the partnerships built through it over the past 30 years, could not simply be equated with money. Witnesses warned that mobility opportunities for people in vocational education and training would “stop in their tracks” without Erasmus funding, and that losing access to the programme would disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities. The time and resources required to establish and maintain exchange partnerships without the support of Erasmus could also be a prohibitive burden for many smaller organisations.

Participation in EU research and innovation programmes also provides clear benefits beyond grant funding. Horizon 2020 supports cross-border research partnerships, provides access to large-scale research facilities, joint infrastructure and equipment, and facilitates the mobility of the most talented researchers across Europe. It would take many years for any UK alternative to emulate the strength and productivity of the research collaborations built through this programme, and the prestigious reputation of EU funding instruments like the European Research Council.

Full association to the forthcoming Erasmus and Horizon programmes is by far the best outcome for UK students and researchers.

Michael Jay, Lord Jay of Ewelme GCMG, sits on the House of Lords EU Select Committee and is Chairman of its Home-Affairs Sub-Committee.