European collaboration and the Scottish research base
– scares in 2014 and risks in 2022.
By stewartb – a long read
The fall-out from Brexit, including the UK government’s position on the NI Protocol, is impacting research and innovation in the UK. Presently, UK-based scientists are unable to join the EU’s €95 billion Horizon Europe research programme because of the dispute over trade in Northern Ireland. ‘Associate membership’ of Horizon Europe – a formal status available to non-EU member states – was agreed in principle during negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU: this is now on hold. The continuing uncertainty is currently a hot topic for the UK’s scientific community.
Those readers closely engaged in the run up to the 2014 independence referendum may recall fear-mongering by Better Together activists over risks to Scotland’s research community from a Yes vote. Preparatory to the upcoming, renewed independence campaign – as similar Unionist scares may re-emerge – it may be worthwhile reflecting more on these issues in the current, changed context.
Baggage of a “general background of reputational damage”
The Times on 25 June, 2022 published an interview with the president of the prestigious Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith who is also a member of the UK Prime Minister’s science and technology council. It was headlined with his observations: ’We’ve created our own brain drain . . . we don’t attract the brightest and best’ followed by ‘Britain’s Brexit stand-off with the EU damages science and destroys researchers’ livelihoods’.
The Royal Society’s president emphasises the importance of securing associate status: “It’s the issue of the age for the academic community in the UK because for four decades the investment and the flows of people in science and research were built around associating with the European programmes.” Arguing that the present ‘raw political impasse’ is a disaster for science, Smith says: “I can understand that, if you are in political dispute, you need leverage of some sort. It just seems bizarre to use science, which is mutually beneficial for the UK and for Europe, as your battering ram.”
More formally, the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society published this statement on 4 March 2022 entitled ‘Royal Society response to Lords European Affairs Committee letters to Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and the EU’. It says in the context of resolving the impasse over Horizon Europe: “It is good to see the Lords committee has recognised the politicisation of science is ‘highly unwelcome’ and lending its voice to the calls made by the UK academies, and our international partners, in urging a high level political intervention to resolve the impasse. Achieving the best deal for citizens across Europe means delivering on our commitments in the Trade & Cooperation Agreement and getting association done.”
As an aside, I wonder if such support for depoliticising science will be sustained by Unionists in the run up to IndyRef2 and in subsequent negotiations to dissolve the UK? I suspect not!
Smith seems less than impressed with the UK government’s ‘plan B’ for global research co-operation, an alternative financed by £6 billion over three years. He insists that the benefit of EU collaboration goes far beyond money: “It’s the networking and the flows of people.” He claims that research talent is already being lost from the UK and notes a drop-off in applications for research posts in the UK from European researchers.
Crucially he identifies a wider cause than just stalled participation in Horizon Europe: ‘There is also the “general background of reputational damage” caused by the government’s apparent willingness to tear up international treaties. “We pissed off the French over fishing right at the very beginning, which is yet another gadfly. I don’t think among the science community in Europe there’s a lack of [respect for the] reputation of UK science. But I think UK government actions of various kinds have got in the way — the slashing of the [overseas development] budgets was a hit on reputation. We had to work very hard, because we were brokering a lot of that in Africa. People were quite generous and realised it wasn’t our fault but you’re suddenly withdrawing grants and screwing up people’s careers.”
Asked if he thinks the UK government understands the importance of science: “It’s hard to know directly,” he replies, “but we’ve had five science ministers in the last 27 months and the science minister is not a member of the cabinet. Does that tell you something? . . . What ministers don’t really get is the internationally competitive nature of science and the competition for talent and people.”
And from the research establishment in Scotland?
I thought it would be instructive to review position statements issued in Scotland – i.e. prepared from a Scotland perspective – on the risk to Horizon Europe participation arising from Westminster’s dispute over NI trade. Two obvious places to look are: (i) Scotland’s own ‘academy’, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE); and (ii) the representative body for Scotland’s universities, Universities Scotland.
Using the term ‘Horizon Europe’ in the search function on the websites of both organisations, no sign of commentary on this matter was found! I can’t be certain that public statements by these bodies have not been made elsewhere but their websites are clearly actively and frequently used to communicate and amplify institutional views.
This might be seen as a rather surprising omission as both these bodies have been active participants in promoting a distinctive, Scottish position on Horizon Europe in the recent past:
‘On the 13th September 2019, Scotland Europa submitted ‘Shaping Horizons: Scotland’s recommendations on the strategic planning for Horizon Europe. This position paper serves as a contribution from Scottish R&I stakeholders to the European Commission consultations on the Strategic Priorities of the Horizon Europe framework programme 2021-2027.
‘Scotland Europa and Scottish Enterprise have worked in partnership with the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Funding Council, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Universities Scotland. Input from numerous Scottish universities and other public and private stakeholders has been facilitated through meetings of the Scottish Horizon 2020 stakeholder forum and the Shaping Horizons: Consultation and strategic planning workshop in Glasgow on 17th June 2019.’
Moreover, in December 2016 Universities Scotland chose to respond to the Scottish Government paper: ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’:
‘Commenting on the paper, Professor Andrea Nolan, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of Edinburgh Napier University said: “Higher education transcends borders. Our relationships with Europe, European universities and other European institutions remain very important to us. Since the Brexit vote we have been clear that our priority is to work with all Governments and stakeholders to ensure those relationships are preserved.’
“We welcome publication of this document as a clear record of the Scottish Government’s priorities and intentions in regards to the European Union. There are aspects of Scotland’s interests, as identified by the Scottish Government, that we strongly identify with including economic interest, solidarity and influence. We welcome the pragmatism in the Scottish Government’s approach and echo the call for all sides to use ‘imagination and flexibility’ in these unprecedented negotiations.
“The Scottish Government’s paper clearly sets out the importance of Scotland’s higher education sector’s relationships with Europe. Our priorities in the negotiations relate to the continued free movement of student and staff talent, and access to and influence over European research funds and collaborations. It is helpful to see these so clearly identified as one of the many priorities of the Scottish Government in this document. We urge the Scottish and UK Governments to find a way forward that supports universities as a welcoming space and a constructive partner for our European friends. ”
What’s going on here and now?
With Scotland’s research-base at risk of exclusion from Horizon Europe why are these two bodies seemingly so reticent now? Of course it would be too cynical to suggest that it may be something to do with the fact that the situation described by the president of the Royal Society and facing Scotland within the UK is: (a) due to a dispute over NI trade over which Scotland has no locus; (b) arises from a circumstance, Brexit that a majority in Scotland rejected; and (c) is all the responsibility of a political party and of governments that a majority in Scotland have repeatedly rejected.
Almost forgot to add one last thing: (d) back in 2014, prominent figures in the research community made much of the risk and uncertainty for the Scottish research base of a vote which would have given an elected government of an independent Scotland powers to avoid (a), (b) and (c) altogether! Is it getting harder to adopt in public even a neutral position over the issue of Scotland and its citizens having the agency enjoyed by normal European nation-states?
After all, upon a Yes vote in 2014 – and even if outside the EU for a time – Scotland would now be an Associate Member of Horizon Europe – welcomed and without the accompanying taint of a “general background of reputational damage”!