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Brexit: what the draft deal means for science

If approved, divorce agreement will see the United Kingdom leave the European nuclear-regulation body — but many uncertainties remain for research.

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May

UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her Cabinet had backed a draft agreement on Britain’s departure from the European Union. Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

After two years of negotiations, the first real glimmers of what Brexit might involve have emerged. On 14 November, the Cabinet, the UK government’s senior decision-making body, backed a draft agreement on the terms of the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.

For science, many of the specifics that will be most relevant are still to be thrashed out. But the treaty, if approved, offers detail on the future of nuclear regulation in the United Kingdom.

An accompanying document hints at provisions for some visa-free travel to and from EU countries — encouraging news for researchers who are used to travelling for collaborations and conferences. But key information on Britain’s future immigration system more generally and participation in big-money EU research-funding programmes — an important source of funding for UK scientists — is yet to come.

Britain will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and will enter a transition period that ends on 31 December 2020. During this transition, little would change in terms of the country’s scientific relationship with the EU; what researchers are keen to know is what happens after that period ends.

For research, the deal “looks pretty good if we have to proceed with Brexit”, says Alastair Buchan, a pro-vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, UK. “The risk this morning is that it is not going to hold,” he adds.

Nobel-prizewinning geneticist Paul Nurse says that the agreement is disappointing for UK scientists. He welcomed the certainty it offers EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, but lamented the lack of information about whether highly skilled EU scientists would be able to work in the country in the future.

“For UK science to continue to flourish, the government needs to be much more welcoming, both in tone and policy,” says Nurse, who is director of London’s Francis Crick Institute.

At a glance: science and the draft deal

The draft text suggests visa-free travel for short visits may be possible to and from European Union member states.

The UK would leave the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom, a nuclear-regulation body.

Its future in the world’s largest fusion experiment ITER, currently accessed through Euratom, it still unknown.

The future of the UK-based, but largely EU-funded, test-bed for ITER — the Joint European Torus near Oxford — is also still uncertain.

The UK’s future participation in EU research-funding programmes will be determined in a later agreement.

Nurse also questioned how committed the UK Treasury was to safeguarding the amount of funding available for researchers in Britain. “Beyond the transition period, the UK still stands to lose £1 billion [US$1.3 billion] a year that we currently get from the EU science budget, and it’s not clear how this might be replaced,” he adds.

The current deal is “a step in the right direction, but it will be a long, hard road to reach a long-term agreement”, says Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society in London.

Political backlash

The agreement has divided politicians, and turmoil in the immediate wake of its announcement casts doubt that it will pass the next step of approval required by the United Kingdom — a vote in Parliament, slated for around 7 December. Many expected that Prime Minister Theresa May would face a fight to win parliamentary approval, but in less than 24 hours, even Cabinet support has dwindled, with two members resigning in protest.

The ructions suddenly increase the prospect that Britain could crash out of the EU without any kind of agreement on their future relationship — a situation widely feared by the science community.

In this eventuality, the country would instantly lose access to at least three of the major funding streams under the EU’s current flagship Horizon 2020 research-funding programme, and there would probably be disruption to the import and export of essential goods — including food, scientific equipment and medicines.

If Parliament rejects the deal, Britain and the EU could go back to the negotiating table, but would have only until the departure date to agree new terms.

Since the UK public voted for Brexit in June 2016, scientists have largely said that the departure under any terms would be a disaster for research, hindering collaboration and risking the loss of access to EU research funds. Broad uncertainty over the nation’s future relationship with the bloc seems to have already affected the research community.

“We are now just months away from Brexit. It is time for an end to the uncertainty that has been damaging science and every other part of life in the UK,” says Ramakrishnan. “The threat of a chaotic no-deal Brexit cannot be considered an option.”

“A no-deal Brexit would be hugely damaging for UK science,” says Mike Galsworthy, who co-leads the Scientists for EU campaign group. But the increasing probability of a no-deal increases the odds that a second ‘people’s vote’ — which would allow the public to vote on the terms of the deal — will happen. “It could be that through these flames comes the phoenix of opportunity,” he says.

What’s in the deal?

Hammered out in fraught negotiations with EU officials, the 585-page agreement confirms many commitments previously made by the UK government. The agreement would allow EU citizens currently living in Britain — including researchers — and their families to claim permanent residence. This should ease fears expressed by many EU nationals resident in the country, including many scientists, that they would have to leave their jobs after Brexit.

The divorce document does not cover in detail what the future relationship between Britain and the EU will look like, for example how immigration policy will change. But, in a statement, May confirmed that ‘free movement’ between the United Kingdom and the bloc — something that researchers say has fuelled scientific collaboration — would end.

The agreement says that, during the transition period, UK scientists will remain eligible for research grants under Horizon 2020 until the programme ends.

But Britain’s ability to participate in the EU’s next major research funding programme, Horizon Europe, which starts in 2021 and is worth €100 billion (US$113 billion), will be properly addressed as part of a later trade agreement. This will be determined only after March 2019.

A short accompanying document released by the government sets out a framework on which the future UK–EU relationship will be built. The seven-page, bullet-pointed document suggests that the eventual agreement might allow visa-free travel to and from all EU member states for short visits.

It also mentions “science and innovation” as one part of the “basis for cooperation” on which the future agreement would be built.

A final version of this framework must be agreed on before the withdrawal text is signed, said the government in a related explainer.

Uncertainty over nuclear experiment

The withdrawal agreement confirms that the UK will leave the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom, when it pulls out of the EU. It fleshes out commitments made in a joint statement last December that Britain will be responsible for international nuclear safeguards in its own territory, in line with the existing regime overseen by Euratom.

But the document doesn’t address a key concern for some researchers: whether Britain can retain membership of the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment, ITER, in southern France, which it currently has through Euratom.

Nor does it give any indication on whether the UK-based test bed for this project — the Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford — which is largely EU-funded — will receive any cash after its current contract expires at the end of this year.

Pro-European Union demonstrators in London

Pro-European Union protesters in London.Credit: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Regulation, customs and Ireland

One of the most contentious parts of the withdrawal agreement is a ‘backstop’ — related to the island of Ireland — that would fall into place should Britain and the EU fail to reach an agreement that would allow frictionless trade by the end of the transition period.

The backstop would prevent a hard border between the historically linked Republic of Ireland, an EU nation, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, by keeping the whole of the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU until an agreement can be reached. It also means Britain would be required to align some regulations with EU rules, including on the environment, labour and state aid, for as long as the backstop lasts, even though the country would no longer have any control over determining such rules.

Scientists from both UK industry and academia, which have consistently sought to retain regulatory alignment with the EU, could welcome this, says Sarah Main, executive director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. But they may regret the arrangement if Britain can no longer use its research strength and evidence-based approach to influence European regulation, she says. “I think the trick to pull out of the hat will be to have that alignment but to also have continued influence.” It’s unclear whether that will be possible though, she adds.

The backstop would mean accepting EU laws without having a say in shaping them for an unknown length of time, which will probably make the deal unpalatable to Members of Parliament who are staunchly pro-Brexit. Both sides must agree to end the backstop, another factor likely to rile parliamentarians who support Brexit.

Scientists on both sides of the Irish border say they are pleased with the deal. Jane Ohlmeyer, a historian who co-chairs the Brexit Taskforce for the Royal Irish Academy, says that it is “excellent” that the deal seems to guarantee a continued open border on the island, because this secures the 1998 Good Friday areements that ended decades of unrest in Northern Ireland. But she is disappointed that research gets almost no mention in the documents.

Gerry McKenna, another co-chair of the taskforce and former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, says: “Both sides deserve credit for their considerable commitment to peace and stability on the island of Ireland.”

What happens now

If May’s Cabinet support holds, and the deal is approved by the UK Parliament, it must then go before the European Parliament and garner the approval of a majority of member states.

An emergency summit of the European Council has been called by its president, Donald Tusk, on 25 November. At this meeting, provided “nothing extraordinary happens”, the leaders of the 27 countries that make up the union will “finalize and formalize the Brexit agreement”, says Tusk.

If the deal is agreed, the crucial next step for the research community will be to push for an agreement on science as soon as possible, says Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy at the London-based biomedical funder the Wellcome Trust. “This could be an important early win for the UK and EU, whose ambitions for science are closely aligned,” she says.

Thompson says that this should include a commitment that would allow Britain to participate in Horizon Europe — as an ‘associated’ country. That status, currently held by non-EU nations such as Israel and Norway, allows the countries to host prestigious European Research Council projects . Whether the EU will agree to this remains unclear.

The agreement should also include cooperation on research regulation, including clinical trials and data sharing, and a reciprocal agreement that would allow researchers to move smoothly between Britain and EU countries, she adds.

No-deal option

If the United Kingdom ends up in the position of a no-deal Brexit, scientists would not be eligible for any fresh EU funding bids until the start of Horizon Europe in 2021 — and, even then, only if an associated-country agreement has been negotiated.

But the UK government has agreed to underwrite any successful EU grant applications secured before 29 March 2019, if there is no deal.

A no-deal “would be very serious” for science, says Richard Catlow, foreign secretary of the Royal Society.

Nature 563, 452-453 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07423-9

Additional reporting by Ewen Callaway, Declan Butler and Nisha Gaind.

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Updates & Corrections

  • Update 15 November 2018: This story has been updated with additional details and comments.