Euro coin against a union jack flag
Euro coin against a union jack flag

EU Cancels Funding for UK Researchers in Ongoing Brexit Fallout

More than 100 grants previously approved for applicants in Britain have been scrapped amid a continuing dispute over the UK’s refusal to fully implement trade arrangements made when the country left the European Union.

Catherine Offord
Catherine Offord

Catherine is a senior editor at The Scientist.

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Jul 6, 2022

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More than 100 UK researchers have lost out on EU funding amid an ongoing row over post-Brexit trade agreements. Of 150 grants approved by Europe’s principal research funder for applicants at British institutions last year, 115 have been terminated after a June 29 deadline set by the EU to urge UK action on those agreements passed, The Guardian reports. While some researchers will be able to take up their funding by moving to an EU institution, the majority have stayed in the UK and have thus been forced to forfeit the money.

Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council (ERC), which oversees allocation of the funds, tells Science that she “profoundly” regrets the situation. “I sincerely hope that our political leaders will find a path to allow us to continue working in the future with the research community in the UK.”

The dispute stems from the UK’s refusal to implement key elements of what’s known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which sets out certain trade rules to accommodate the UK’s departure from the European single market. The protocol, which technically came into effect in early 2021, was negotiated and approved by both sides when the country left the EU in order to avoid creating trade barriers between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK), and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. That border was demilitarized and opened up following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The UK government says the arrangements place an unreasonable regulatory and bureaucratic burden on trade connections between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In June, it proposed legislation that would allow the UK to unilaterally override parts of the protocol—a move that many political observers, legal commentators, and even the government itself have acknowledged may break international law.

The UK and the EU had previously made various other agreements as part of Brexit negotiations, establishing, for example, that the UK could continue participating in an EU-wide research funding program, Horizon Europe. But the EU has long said that its approval of this and other deals depend on the UK honoring its obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol. Earlier this year, as talks on the protocol stalled, the ERC set a deadline of June 8, later postponed to June 29, for grant awardees to decide what they wanted to do in the event there was no political progress: forfeit the funding, or take up their grant at an EU institution.

With that deadline now passed, economist Theimo Fetzer of the University of Warwick is one of 18 researchers moving to the EU, the Guardian reports. Telling the news outlet that he was “relieved” about the decision, he notes that “this whole Brexit process has eroded my trust in the UK’s institutions and this Horizon Europe association was just another incarnation of this.”

A further 14 grant cases are still being resolved, an ERC spokesperson tells The Guardian.

UK Science Minister George Freeman has said in interviews and in writing that the UK government wants to resolve the dispute, but otherwise will implement a “Plan B” for science funding, rerouting money it would have paid into Horizon Europe to a separate, UK-based funding program.

Editor’s note (July 7): Since this story was published, George Freeman has resigned, joining a wave of more than 50 members of parliament who have quit Boris Johnson’s government. The role has not yet been filled.