UK social science will be dealt a serious blow by Brexit

6 July 2016

In an article originally appearing in the Guardian, Ashley Lenihan and Sharon Witherspoon look at the long term implications of Brexit for UK social science.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has created huge uncertainty for the entire research community – including social scientists. At stake is not just the loss of research funding – about £1bn a year, and30% more than the UK puts into EU research budgets – but also our access to networks and infrastructure, which depend on freedom of movement.

Among participating countries in Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship research programme, the UK holds the biggest share of signed grant agreements. Under the previous framework programme, the UK was second in terms of participant numbers and budget share.

Within this total, UK social science has done particularly well, at a time when UK government investment has declined. EU funding of UK social science has risen steadily since the financial crisis (outpacing a rise in EU funding of other UK disciplines), and social scientists have been highly successful in obtaining European Research Council grants (ranking first among EU member states on a number of measures). We have also benefitted from international collaboration, infrastructure, training and capacity building, like our colleagues in biomedical, natural and physical sciences, who are making similar arguments .

EU funding and logistical support has radically transformed the social science landscape. Many of the substantive issues facing us – ageing societies, improvement of education outcomes, tackling poverty and inequality, improving health by changing behaviour – benefit from comparative research across EU countries. And 16% of social scientists in UK universities are from other EU countries, often helping to fill posts where there is a shortfall of UK skills.

Of course, EU collaboration will not end overnight as a result of the referendum, not least because the legal situation will not change for some time. But the incentives for other European researchers to seek partnerships with UK colleagues will change, and there are already anecdotal reports of UK researchers being asked to forego project leadership.

A planning blight is likely to take hold that won’t easily be ameliorated by statements of the legal position. Though we would like to be wrong, we predict a visible decline in the number of UK social scientists taking part in and leading EU-funded research during the exit negotiations, even while the UK remains a full EU member.

The future looks even more difficult. As outlined in a recent briefing note from the Academy of Social Sciences, the UK’s participation in EU funding and research collaborations depends fundamentally on agreement over freedom of movement.

There are three ways to gain access to EU framework programmes (FPs) such as Horizon 2020: as an EU member country; as a fully ‘associated’ country; or as a non-associated third country participant.

Associated countries must pay into the FPs, and then become automatically eligible for EU research funding. They do not have a formal role in deciding the direction of the FPs, as the UK does now, but can influence them at the edges. Their researchers can be principal investigators, and their institutions may host projects (such as the European Social Survey Programme based at City University).

Non-associated countries do not enjoy these benefits: they are not eligible for EU funding on the same terms as member states, their institutions cannot host projects, and their researchers can be principal investigators only if they can find an institution in an EU-member state or associated country to host them.

Under current provisions, associated countries can be those in the process of EU accession, members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), or states previously associated with the last framework programme. So for the UK, the only viable route to associated status under these provisions is to join the EFTA. But to do so requires agreement to full freedom of movement.

An examination of two commonly cited models – Norway and Switzerland – illustrates the difficulty. Norway is both a member of the EFTA and the European Economic Area (EEA), which means it accepts EU laws and directives and full freedom of movement, while paying into the research frameworks. In return, Norway gets fully associated status in the FPs.

Switzerland, however, is not a member of the EEA, only accepting EU laws in batches. In the past, it was fully associated with the FPs, but it lost that status as a result of no longer accepting full free movement in 2014. Switzerland is now only partially associated with H2020, and if it does not allow free movement n by the end of the year will be treated as a third party country. As a result, it will no longer be automatically eligible for EU funding of their research, and will be unable to host major projects. (Other bilateral association agreements exist for countries like Israel and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but these are special cases for non-European or (pre) accession countries.) There are no existing templates for full participation by a European country that don’t require full freedom of movement.

Retaining UK participation in EU-funded collaborations – whether in projects, infrastructure projects or capacity-building – without free movement would require negotiation of a new template for “associated status”. These limits would have to be agreed by all twenty-seven EU member states but as the Swiss case shows, they have previously been unwilling to do this. So there is a circle here to be squared.

In the meantime, the government will also need to consider how to ensure that future immigration policies do not pose unreasonable barriers to entry for academic posts and to specialist research posts outside of academia. The excellence of UK universities depends on our ability to recruit in an international labour market. Thought will also need to be given to whether or not EU students will continue to have access to UK universities on the same terms as now – and the underlying message we want to give about our openness to international students. This will have further consequences, given the role of universities as drivers of local economic growth.

And on the domestic policy front, even if parliament were functioning normally, these dilemmas would make the passage of the government’s new higher education and research bill difficult. Careful, cross-party scrutiny is vital – both of the HE bill and of the post-Brexit options for research – to ensure that this period of profound uncertainty doesn’t do long-term damage to British social science.

Ashley Lenihan is senior policy advisor and Sharon Witherspoon is head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences and its Campaign for Social Science.

Read our briefing notes on the implications of the EU referendum result on social science and on the Higher Education and Research Bill.