Main Menu

Science after Brexit – how will we continue to collaborate with the EU on medical research?


This week the Government released a position paper on collaboration in science and innovation as we leave the EU. Our Science Policy Officer Dr Sam Dick discusses some key points from the paper and what they mean for the future of UK medical research.

Posted on 08 September, 2017 by Sam Dick

UK and EU flags on signpost pointing different directions

Credit: image from Pixabay

One of the most crucial questions for the scientific community as the UK prepares to leave the EU is how our researchers will continue to collaborate with their colleagues across Europe.

This week the Government went some way to answering the concerns of scientific organisations such as The Institute of Cancer Research, with a position paper outlining how the UK will collaborate with the EU on scientific research and innovation in the future. 

The paper outlines the UK’s aims to achieve an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU. It is a promising sign from the Government that the voice of the scientific community has been heard, but what do its proposals mean for medical research in the UK?

Collaboration through EU programmes

A key positive from the paper is the news that the UK intends to remain part of various key EU projects and funding streams post-Brexit. Historically the UK has excelled at attracting EU funding, receiving £8 billion between 2007 and 2013, £3 billion more than it paid into the research budget. 

Of particular interest to medical research are the Research and Innovation Framework Programmes, the largest of which is Horizon 2020. UK researchers attract a sixth of the funds awarded by the Horizon 2020 programme, which support several large-scale projects and contribute significantly to the UK research base. Programmes like this also open up access to important shared facilities that have been vital in driving European research.

The paper suggests the UK could continue to contribute to Horizon 2020 as an associated country. Associated countries have the same level of access as member states but do not have a formal vote over the work programme. Terms of association vary, often including financial contributions, and while it is great to see the UK striving to remain part of such vital collaborative projects it is likely this will come at a cost both in terms of finance and influence.

Future associations will be discussed as part of the EU’s negotiations on the next Framework Programme. It remains to be seen how this will affect the UK both in terms of remaining part of Horizon 2020 and future membership of new EU programmes.

Movement of skilled workers

It looks likely that freedom of movement could come to an end as soon as the UK leaves the EU. However, the Government makes clear in the new paper that it wants the UK to remain as a hub for international talent, and that highly skilled workers will still be encouraged to come to the UK. That’s encouraging for the ICR, which is an international organisation that absolutely relies on being able to attract the best and brightest minds from across the globe for our future success.

Initiatives like The Rutherford Fund, a new £100 million investment to attract early-career and senior researchers from all over the world, are an encouraging sign that UK science will remain international after we leave the EU. 

But the Government needs to be clearer on how movement of skilled researchers will work outside the EU, and also on who counts as skilled. Simply assessing people by how much they will be earning wouldn’t work well for science, where highly skilled researchers are often not paid particularly highly.

It’s also important that there are systems in place to ensure movement of researchers internationally as part of collaborative projects. The EU currently facilitates mobility for researchers in the UK and across Europe through the European Research Area (ERA). 

This has addressed barriers to mobility and made Europe a more attractive research destination. At the ICR, we’d be keen to know how the UK plans to negotiate the maintenance of such a system in the future.

The ICR believes that world-class science is an international effort. Find out more about the ICR's position on the impact of leaving the European Union in our detailed position statement.

Read more


Membership of EU agencies

The UK is currently a member of various EU agencies and organisations that are hugely beneficial to research. It is great to see the Government acknowledging the importance of such organisations, particularly the Europeans Medicines Agency (EMA). 

The EMA assesses new drugs for their efficacy and safety and approves their use in the EU. It will be essential moving forward to maintain a close relationship with the EMA to ensure there are no barriers to access to innovative treatments for patients.  

Maintaining a close regulatory relationship with the EU will also be essential to ensure that clinical trials can take place across the UK and the rest of Europe. This is vital in particular for rare cancers where small patient populations necessitate international collaboration. 

A close relationship with European agencies will also be important in maintaining access to huge pools of useful data. It is encouraging to see an intention for continued involvement in the European Reference Networks (ERN), seven of which are based in the UK. These networks support knowledge sharing in rare diseases for both clinical care and research. There are a number of non-EU countries with access to these networks and it seems likely the UK will remain involved.

I was also pleased to see European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) mentioned as a key organisation. The ESFRI, formed in 2002, plays a key role in planning long-term scientific infrastructure for the EU and is currently only accessible to EU member states and countries associated with Horizon 2020. It will be essential for the UK to remain part of such initiatives to maintain the current level of scientific research, and so we can ensure that research findings from organisations like the ICR are translated into patient benefit.

What next?

While it is great to see that the Government is starting a conversation about how science will work outside the EU, there still remains a significant amount of work to be done. The UK clearly values scientific research and understands the important role that international collaboration plays in this. Collaboration also featured heavily in The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy released last week. You can read more about the strategy in a previous ICR blog post

The paper covers several themes that will be important not only in maintaining the world-leading standard of research done in the UK but in ensuring that this research can be used to benefit patients. 

However, its purpose is only to outline the issues that need to be included as part of negotiations with the EU. More detail is needed to ease some of the uncertainty that has surrounded UK science over the last year.

At the ICR, we hope the new position paper signals the beginning of the process for securing a bright future for medical research in the UK.


comments powered by Disqus