16 January 2023

Impact of Brexit on Access to Research and Innovation Funding

Written by Rachel Toner

Whilst much of the reporting on the impact of Brexit relates to the movement of goods and trade, the loss of funding programmes for research and innovation is often overlooked.

When the UK was a Member State of the EU it was automatically entitled to participate in EU programmes for funding research and innovation, such as Horizon Europe which has a budget of €95.5 billion for 2021 – 2027. Other programmes include the EU space programme Copernicus, Euratom Research and Training and the European component of the international thermonuclear experimental reactor and the development of fusion energy.

The importance of such programmes to businesses, innovators and researchers, particularly Universities, cannot be overstated nor can the results which are derived from international collaborative research projects. The UK has been a major contributor to the programmes and was keen to continue that partnership and so how the UK might continue to engage with such programmes was a feature of the Brexit negotiations. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), being the instrument which establishes the new framework between the UK and the EU post-Brexit, includes provision that the UK “shall participate” in EU programmes. However, certain details, such as which programmes the UK would participate in, the duration of the UK’s participation and conditions of participation, were not agreed within the TCA and are to be captured and agreed within a Protocol to the TCA.

Whilst agreed in principle, the Protocol relating to the UK’s participation in the EU Programmes has not been adopted. The delay has been attributed to the disagreements surrounding the implementation of the NI Protocol under the TCA. The UK Government have sought to unilaterally remove parts of the NI Protocol through the NI Protocol Bill, undermining the agreement reached between the UK and the EU. The NI Protocol Bill is currently on its passage through the House of Lords and has been met by fierce criticism and the threat of legal action from the EU due to failure of the UK to implement the existing agreement. The disagreements surrounding the NI Protocol are felt most acutely in Northern Ireland. The Assembly has been suspended since February 2022 after the DUP First Minister stepped down in protest over the NI Protocol, leaving Northern Ireland without an Executive and in political deadlock.

Pending ratification of the UK’s association to the programme, the UK government have provided a “funding guarantee” to ensure that UK applicants who were successful in their application to Horizon Europe can continue their work for the lifetime of their grant. The guarantee was first launched in November 2021 by the UK Research and Innovation on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and was extended in December 2022 to cover eligible and evaluated applications up to 31 March 2023.

A total of 1248 grant offers have been issued to researchers across academia, the private and public sector under the UK funding guarantee with a total value of £645 million at the 31 December 2022. Only £5.4 million of the total sum awarded under the funding guarantee was for NI applicants, being only 0.8% of the total sum. The latest statistics on the Horizon dashboard show that NI researchers have submitted 174 eligible proposals (0.59% of the total number of eligible proposals), with 70% of the organisations being in the higher or secondary education sector. It is hoped that the successful evaluated applicants can also avail of the funding guarantee, with only 17 grant letters being offered to NI organisations thus far from the 26 submitted. The NI Department for the Economy has encouraged NI researchers and businesses to continue to form collaborative partnerships with international counterparts and bid into Horizon Europe in light of the guarantee.

The current arrangement creates uncertainty, which is not conducive to long-term strategic research partnerships and innovation. Another criticism levelled at the funding guarantee approach is that it does not address the collaborative opportunities offered through Horizon Europe. Science commentator Anjana Ahuja noted in the Financial Times that “Losing connections forged over four decades of the world’s leading collaborative research programme through poor statecraft is worse than bad. It makes a mockery of the Government’s self-proclaimed ambition to turn the UK into a global science superpower.”

As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, talks between the UK and the EU have intensified with the view of reaching agreement on changes to the NI Protocol with a joint statement expected later today. Should a framework of resolving the issues be achieved, power sharing may be restored in Northern Ireland. Such agreement may also path the way for ratifying the UK’s association to the funding programmes to the relief of those within higher education, research and innovation.

If you would like any further information or advice on these issues, please contact Rachel Toner from the Commercial team.

*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.

About the author

Rachel Toner

Senior Associate

Rachel is a Senior Associate Solicitor within the Commercial team at Carson McDowell. Rachel regularly advises both public and private sector clients on a spectrum of commercial matters, from general commercial contracts, terms and conditions of business, specialist industry specific contracts such as manufacturing or franchise agreements to advice on data protection and intellectual property matters.

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