Last Friday (23 March) the UK Government and the EU agreed the terms of a Brexit transition deal – this sets out how the UK and EU will work together from 29 March 2019 until 31 December 2020. The deal provides some welcome clarity for research and innovation on future mobility and collaboration, funding and regulation, but leaves a number of questions outstanding.

What do we know so far?

Currently researchers from the European Economic Area and Switzerland are able to enter the UK to work and study without a visa. The same applies to UK researchers currently working or planning to work in the EEA and Switzerland. Friday’s agreement outlines that this will remain unchanged until 31 December 2020, with all individuals entering the UK, or vice-versa, eligible to apply for settled status (which the government have indicated will be light touch and inexpensive). Our FAQ has more detail.

Eligibility for EU funding remains a major concern for UK-based scientists. A joint report published by the Government and the European Union in December clarified that the UK will participate in Horizon 2020 to its end, meaning that those already in receipt of EU funding will continue to be funded, and those wishing to apply for Horizon 2020 funding can do so with confidence. See the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Q&A for more details.

When it comes to regulation, we know that cross-border alignment can help to facilitate international research collaboration. The transition deal confirms that we will see continued regulatory alignment until the end of the transition deal, an important clarification for multiple sectors involved in scientific research.

What questions remain?

Plenty of questions remain! On mobility, it remains unclear what kind of immigration system will be in place from 2021. Will there be a single system in place for all researchers from across the world looking to live, work or forge collaborations with scientists in the UK, or will there be a separate system for individuals from the EEA, who up to now have had freedom of movement? Similarly, what provisions will be in place for UK researchers looking to head in the opposite direction?

The Government have commissioned the Migration Advisory Council (MAC) to look into the role of EEA workers in the UK Labour market. They are due to report back this autumn and published an interim update this week. Our submission to their inquiry highlights the role of EEA nationals in the UK’s research and innovation workforce. Whatever the outcome, clarity is important. As pointed out by the House of Commons Science and Technology committee: “if a pact is not agreed in late 2018 this will increase risks to retaining and attracting the essential talent that our science and innovation sectors need”.

While the UK will participate in Horizon 2020 to its end, UK participation in FP9 (Horizon 2020’s successor) remains an unknown, as does what role the UK might have in shaping the programme after it ceases to be an EU Member State at 11pm on 29 March next year. The Royal Society have called for the closest possible association with FP9 and recently responded to the Commission’s consultation on FP9.

Warm words have come from both the UK and the EU regarding continued scientific collaboration, including in the independent LAB-FAB-APP report for the European Commission which highlighted that “full and continued engagement with the UK within the post-2020 EU R&I programme remains an obvious win-win for the UK and the EU”. But for researchers who are already putting together funding bids and building relationships with future collaborators and consortia, clarity is important. BEIS minister Lord Henley recently responded to a Parliamentary question on FP9, stating that the Government “wanted to ensure FP9 remained focused on excellence, with appropriate financial contributions and suitable level of influence for Associated Countries” and that participation “will depend on the outcome of our negotiations”.

Whilst we know that UK and EU regulation will continue to be aligned until the end of the transition phase, and that the UK government plans to transfer EU law into UK law at the point of departure, how this will operate in practice is yet to be outlined. This is particularly important for regulation such as the Clinical Trials Regulation, which is still in the process of implementation as the UK leaves the EU. Theresa May in her speech on 2 March confirmed that the UK’s “default is that UK law may not necessarily be identical to EU law, but it should achieve the same outcomes.” And that “If the Parliament of the day decided not to achieve the same outcomes as EU law, it would be in the knowledge that there may be consequences for our market access.”

Last week the Commons S&T Committee called for an ‘early deal’ for science.  We are continuing to engage with policymakers and partners in the UK and internationally to ensure that the implications and opportunities for research and innovation and considered throughout the ‘Brexit’ process and work towards the best outcome for research and innovation.

Read our Brexit FAQ for more information about Brexit and research. You can find out more about the Society’s work on Brexit here.