There is more scientific collaboration in Europe than just the EU, says UK's Minister of State for Universities and Science Jo Johnson


28 Jul 2016 Manchester - At a speech given in Manchester at EOSF16 earlier this week, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science Jo Johnson complained that partners and scientists from EU countries are reluctant to work with UK researchers on new Horizion 2020 proposals or projects post Brexit. Although it is not clear what is going to happen, Johnson stressed that the UK is still part of Horizon 2020, the European Research programme, so there is no reason to exclude European partners. He told the audience that EU students studying in the UK, or looking to start in the autumn, remain eligible for student finance for the full duration of their courses. The UK remains fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU.

The following is the part of his speech, following one by Commissioner Moedas, that focused on the post Brexit situation for science.

"You don't need me to tell you that excellent science depends on excellent collaboration: sharing ideas, comparing notes, testing assumptions and, occasionally, disagreeing with each other.

This is why 'openness', as Commissioner Carlos Moedas has so eloquently explained and championed, is such an important part of the equation.

And, I completely agree with his assessment that the strongest position to have, that benefits us all, is to be collaborative, outcome-focused and global in our approach.

It is just over a month since the UK referendum, and the exact structure of the relationship that the UK has with the EU in the future will require much detailed discussion. But I am absolutely clear that we will be more outward-looking than ever as a country. As the Prime Minister has said, leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe or turning our backs on the world.

That's why I am concerned by reports that UK participants are being asked not to lead or participate in Horizon 2020 project bids or are reluctant to apply for longer projects as they are not confident they will receive money due after the UK's eventual departure from the EU.

It is worth remembering that in legal terms, nothing changed overnight following the referendum. The UK remains an EU member during the 2-year renegotiation period, with all the rights and obligations that derive from this.

EU students studying here, or looking to start in the autumn, remain eligible for student finance for the full duration of their courses. We remain fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU. We hugely value the contribution of EU and international staff. And there are no immediate changes to their rights to live and work in the UK.

I would like to thank Commissioner Carlos Moedas and his colleagues in the European Commission for helping us to remind people of these basic facts.

And I am really pleased also that Commissioner Moedas reiterated just now that Horizon 2020 will continue to be evaluated on the basis of excellence, not nationality.

Just as I welcomed last week the statement by the League of European Research Universities that UK universities are, and will continue to be, indispensable collaborative partners; its decision to call upon those who review funding applications to see the engagement of UK partners as a desirable feature of projects, rather than a risk; and its commendable position that it is "completely inappropriate to respond to the referendum by taking decisions that punish UK researchers, or disrupt partnerships".

Of course, I completely understand that Brexit inevitably poses new challenges for all of us beyond the reassurances that Commissioner Moedas and I have been able to give today. The immediate concerns around movement of people and grant status, are understandable, they are the obvious things to worry about when collaborations can run for many years and individual careers depend on making the right decisions.

I recognise the demand for further clarity on these issues. And I am working intensively with colleagues across government to provide it as soon as practical.

In the meantime, as the UK establishes its new position in the world, we will work with you to protect our research and innovation at this time of change.

And, forgive me, Carlos (Moedas), but even on the continent of Europe, the EU is not the only game in town. Academic and research cooperation in Europe predates the EU by centuries, and the community of European academic institutions has always been much wider than the EU.

The UK will continue to play a leading role in major non-EU research collaborations that take place here - from CERN in Switzerland to the European Space Agency. Just this month we confirmed the UK's application to become a full member of a major new particle accelerator, the European Spallation Source in Sweden.

Here in the UK, we have fundamental strengths on which we must now build.

First and foremost, we have a long established system that supports, and therefore attracts, the brightest minds, at all stages of their careers. Many of those are in the room here today. We fund excellent science wherever it is found, and ensure there is the academic freedom - the support for the scientific temper - to tackle important scientific questions.

As a government, we recognise the contribution that our world-class research base makes to our economy and wellbeing, which is why we have committed to protect the science budget in real terms, and protect the funding that flows through Innovate UK in cash terms.

The new Prime Minister has already recognised this in a letter last week to Sir Paul Nurse, the Royal Society and the CBI, which reiterated the government's manifesto and Spending Review pledges to protecting science and research funding in real terms. This clear personal commitment is hugely welcome.

Second, we have excellent scientific infrastructure here in the UK - in universities, in existing research institutes, such as the Medical research Council MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and in new institutes like 'The Crick' and 'Royce'. This is backed by a manifesto commitment of £6.9 billion capital funding up to 2021 - that's record levels of investment in new equipment, new laboratories and new research institutes.

Third, we have access to major research infrastructures across the world, such as the Large Hadron Collider, in which the UK plays a leading role. We are a major partner in building new infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array whose global headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank; and in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which made the dramatic gravitational waves discovery. It was UK researchers, working with their counterparts, who made this discovery possible."

So there seems to be some commitment of the UK governement to look at a smooth Brexit for scientific collaboration within the EU. Although Johnsen mentioned some large scientific research institutes in which the UK intends to remain partner, he did not talk about the possibility to stay in Horizon 2020 (and the follow on framework programmes) as associated partner or the like.