The Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest biomedical research charity, has published a report containing Wellcome's recommendations from the Future Partnership Project. The report sets out Wellcome's view on the possible structure of a new UK-EU research partnership following the UK's departure from the EU and sets out suggestions for how this could be delivered.

Wellcome's key recommendations

The report highlights the importance of finding a way for the UK and EU to maintain a close partnership on research and innovation after Brexit. In particular, it sets out recommendations in three main areas that Wellcome suggests need to be addressed in Brexit negotiations: funding; regulation and research policy; and movement of researchers.

Funding

As an EU Member State, the UK is currently an active participant in the EU Framework Programmes. These funding programmes are the EU’s primary funding mechanism for supporting collaborative, transnational research and development in the European Research Area, which is based on the EU internal market. Since the UK will not be a Member State after Brexit, it will no longer be an automatic participant in the EU Framework Programmes. However, Wellcome considers that the UK's continued participation in the EU Framework Programmes and in other EU research funding initiatives is important and makes the following recommendations in this regard:

  • The UK should secure 'Associated Country' status in an excellence-focused Framework Programme 9 ("FP9"), as this would be the best way to participate in European research. Wellcome believes that 'Associated Country' status would be the best outcome for both the EU and the UK. Being an 'Associated Country' would mean that the UK would have access to the entire Framework Programme, with co-operation in other areas of research funding. The UK's financial contribution to the shared funding pool would be based on GDP. It would have the rights and obligations of a Member State but would not have a formal vote at programme management committees. Current examples of Associated Countries include Switzerland, Norway and Israel.
  • The UK should be pragmatic about the cost of access to FP9. According to Wellcome, between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8 billion of direct EU funding for research in return for an estimated contribution of €5.4 billion. These figures demonstrate the benefit of these programmes to the UK without taking into account additional non-financial benefits. Based on current Associated Country contributions, it is estimated that the UK would be somewhere between being a small net beneficiary and a moderate net contributor if it participated in FP9 as an Associated Country.
  • The EU should be pragmatic about the terms of FP9 association for the UK. When considering the terms of any UK association, the EU should recognise that UK participation would bring financial and non-financial benefits to the EU.
  • The UK should continue to engage as a full, constructive and reliable partner in European research funding, research policy and science advice. Until it leaves the EU, the UK should play an active role in developing FP9 via its role in the European Council and seats in the European Parliament. In the longer term, the UK should continue to contribute to dialogue on research and innovation in Brussels wherever possible.

Regulation and research policy

Contributors to the Future Partnership Project consultation emphasised the importance of shared regulatory standards to maintain the ability for UK researchers to be able to collaborate easily with researchers in other countries without significant additional cost. The report suggests that the UK and the EU share common values which form the basis of their approach to the regulation of scientific research. It also emphasises the instrumental contribution that the UK has made to EU medicines legislation and regulation via the MHRA. The key recommendations are:

  • The EU and UK should continue to cooperate on pre-competitive research regulation. A research and innovation agreement should enable the UK to participate in the EU's harmonised clinical trials system on a similar basis to Member States. This agreement should ensure that UK organisations can sponsor trials and that the UK can act as the reporting Member State when reviewing applications. It would also be desirable for the agreement to cover other areas of pre-competitive research regulation, such as the regulation of genetic modification of organisms in research, the sharing of tissues or cells in research and animal welfare issues.
  • A research and innovation agreement should promote dialogue on areas of research policy where the EU and UK can provide global leadership, for example on open research. The agreement should encourage open research, gender diversity, support the development of early career researchers and deliver robust ethical reviews of research.

Movement of researchers

According to the report, the vast majority of those who participated in the Future Partnership Project stressed the need for easy mobility for researchers between the EEA and the UK after Brexit. Evidence suggests that publications derived from collaborative research have greater impact4 and that over half of the UK's collaborative papers are with EU partners.5 Wellcome therefore recommends that:

  • A research and innovation agreement should support full researcher mobility between the EEA and the UK. In Wellcome's view, expansion of the current system for non-EEA workers would be unsatisfactory since the system is not quick or agile and relies too heavily on salary or qualifications, rather than being based on skill.

Download the full report (PDF).

Comment

The Wellcome report stresses the importance of international collaboration in order for the UK to achieve continued success in research and innovation, in particular ensuring that the UK maintains a close relationship with the EU after Brexit. This view appears to be shared by the Government which has stated its intention to seek a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU after Brexit.6 However, implementation of some of the specific recommendations in the Wellcome report in relation to funding and medicines regulation may require the UK to adopt EU law after Brexit and involve a continuing role for the CJEU, both of which are likely to prove controversial. Ensuring the free movement of researchers may also be challenging in light of the UK Government's current position which appears to be that free movement of workers will cease after the UK's departure from the EU, or following the end of any transition period agreed with the EU.