There is still uncertainty over future participation in FP9 and the free flow of talent

As Brexit approaches, concern remains about the lack of clarity on key issues relating to science and innovation, such as access to funding, regulation and immigration policies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is calling on the government to remove science from the wider Brexit trade negotiations and make drafting a science and innovation agreement an urgent priority, with the aim of having one in place by October 2018.

‘The UK’s science and innovation sector is in a strong position as the UK enters the Brexit negotiations,’ says the committee’s chair Norman Lamb. ‘But we can’t take it for granted that we will retain this world-leading position. A concerning lack of clarity remains over access to funding, association with regulatory bodies, and immigration policies.’ It is crucial that the government acts quickly, he adds.

In a new report, Brexit: Science and Innovation, the committee calls on the government to commit to securing Associated Country status, which would allow the UK to participate in the EU’s next flagship research funding programme, Framework Programme 9 (FP9). The government has avoided this so far, and this uncertainty risks having a ‘direct and imminent impact’, the report says. Some funding bids for FP9 will start to be developed in the coming weeks.

The committee also urges the government to clarify the status of students applying to study in the UK in 2019, given that many universities will soon be distributing information about the 2019 academic year. It also points out it is ‘imperative’ that the migration system for scientists, researchers and scientific technicians recognises the need for mobility, including the benefits for scientists moving between research organisations and taking part in collaborative visits.

Falling applications

Brexit uncertainty is beginning to bite, according to a survey of research organisations by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). Organisations report falling application rates from EU nationals and candidates turning down prestigious research positions citing Brexit uncertainty as a key factor, says Sarah Main, CaSE Executive Director. Main endorses the report’s message that urgent action is needed. ‘It is critical that the government acts swiftly to secure an ambitious agreement. We want to see UK participation in EU research programmes, frictionless movement of science and engineering professionals, and harmonisation of regulation with the ability to influence,’ she says.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomes the report’s focus on immigration issues. ‘If universities are to thrive following the UK’s exit from the EU, it is essential that staff and students from across the world can come to the UK without unnecessary administrative burdens. The UK government should provide assurances about their ability to remain in the UK long-term as soon as possible.’

The Royal Society of Chemistry also welcomes the report, although its director of Science & Communities Jo Reynolds points out that it omits a key issue – the need to agree a mechanism for continued UK-EU collaboration on regulation. The transition agreement indicates the UK won’t be able to participate in the committees of scientific agencies during the proposed transition period, unless invited to do so. ‘A hiatus in UK participation on key international regulatory committees could damage valuable scientific relations that have been built up over many years,’ Reynolds says. ‘We must find a way to maintain continuous links between UK and EU regulators in areas such as chemicals regulation, where cooperation supports the shared goal of protecting human health and the environment, whilst enabling trade and innovation.’