Are UK researchers missing out on H2020 funding post-Brexit?

12 Jul 2016

Reports in the UK following the Brexit vote have suggested that its researchers face a difficult time ahead, with Horizon 2020 (H2020) funding set to dry up. Is this true?

Researchers in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England are understandably concerned at the moment, with the EU funding for their projects weighed down by a massive Brexit-shaped question mark.

Will the EU pull funding? What will it mean for their projects? What will it mean for the researchers? Where will it be transferred to?

Future Human

These are all concerns that have gestated very quickly, since the referendum to leave the EU was passed with 1m votes to spare last month.

A new dawn

The above tweet, from the political editor of Sky News, soon after the vote was confirmed shows just how concerning a time it has become for researchers.

Today, The Guardian reported on a “wave of discrimination against UK researchers”, with academics encouraged to leave leadership roles on collaborative projects because they are “considered a financial liability”.


Uncertainty as far as the Horizon

With the top six UK universities alone leading or partners in H2020 projects worth almost €500m, uncertainty among scientists is understandable.

“In one case, an EU project officer recommended that a lead investigator drop all UK partners from a consortium because Britain’s share of funding could not be guaranteed,” reads The Guardian report, which surveyed 24 universities in the UK.

However, that’s certainly not the feeling in Ireland, where Prof Mark Ferguson, Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) director-general, said researchers are encouraged to partner up with UK colleagues.

“A number of Irish bids have, and will have, UK partners,” said Ferguson, who was adamant that nothing has changed in terms of H2020 projects.

“They’re still in the EU. So it’s business as usual.”

Everything in its right place

Ferguson expects a workaround, whereby UK researchers will still take part in H2020 projects even after they leave the EU (whenever that is).

“We have no official policy to avoid UK partners, if anything we want to use this as an opportunity to stimulate more collaboration because the UK may well feel uncertain.”

The uncertainty is natural, with researchers left worrying about not just their vocation, but their livelihoods. However, Ferguson said he has not seen any evidence of active discrimination against UK researchers, just vague statements and unquantifiable claims.

The success rate of projects in securing H2020 funding is around 12-15pc, leaving the vast majority rejected and open to suggestions as to why. Could it be because UK researchers are involved or are leading?

Probably not, suggested Ferguson, as “sometimes smart people just write poor proposals”.

It’s a great unknown. “It’s really one of those questions that will never be properly answered. In future if a collaboration between researchers does not include a UK partner, people will wonder,” said Ferguson.

Open doors

The SFI said that Irish projects garner funding at slightly above the average EU rate, and that any worried researchers looking to move are more than welcome in Ireland.

“We have a first-class research system and if people are looking to move somewhere, we’re open for business,” said Ferguson. “But I believe this will all be worked out. The UK is good for H2020, they have great researchers and great facilities.”

SFI support will not stop the uncertainty, though. Nature ran a piece asking members of the scientific community in the UK their view on Brexit. They were overwhelmingly in the worried camp.

“I was on a career panel only yesterday, singing the praises of the UK as a wonderful place of opportunity for young scientists, and I feel like that has changed overnight,” said Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu, an infectious-diseases researcher at Imperial College London, after the results came in.

Uncertainty will continue in the UK, while all other EU states continue to motor ahead with their projects, both current and future.

The real, immediate concern must be what effect the uncertainty has on current projects. H2020 is a good initiative, undermining it is silly.

Main microscope image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic