We believe brain tumour patients need a 'global Britain' after Brexit. The UK Government has published an important paper outlining its current position on scientific cooperation for when the UK leaves the European Union
Research funded by The Brain Tumour Charity has benefited from EU funding contributions and EU collaboration, meaning ourselves and our community have an acute interest in what the future arrangements will look like after Brexit.
Brexit Secretary David Davis has restated the Prime Minister's ambition for Britain to be one of the best places in the world for science and innovation, and said it was “crucial that we to maintain collaboration with our European partners after we exit”.
We welcome the publication of the paper and the aspiration to maintain research collaboration. Encouragingly, the paper recognises the key issues at stake and highlights the value of UK-EU collaboration.
However, the paper is relatively weak on the detail of how big challenges will be overcome and how the UK's position as a leader in medical research will be protected.
Firstly, on funding, the UK Government wishes to maintain involvement in EU research programmes such as the existing €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme (H2020). This is a welcome commitment and a sign that the UK Government is willing to explore the option of continued membership of EU structures after Brexit.
Nonetheless, because the UK will relinquish its membership of the EU in 2019, our contribution and role within EU programmes will inevitably change, and the Government recognises this. The paper states that non-EU countries who operate in EU funding schemes have varied access according to their financial contributions and adherence to the values of the EU; including free movement of people.
The Swiss case study
Switzerland is a useful case study here. Whilst not an EU member state, it has historically accepted free movement of people from the EU, and therefore initially accessed H2020 as an 'Associated Country'.
However, in 2014, Switzerland voted in a referendum to limit immigration and blocked free movement of people from new EU member states. The EU relegated Switzerland to an 'Associated Third Country' class within H2020, effectively a grade lower than 'Associated Country'. This excluded them from certain parts of the funding programme.
Switzerland's status in H2020 has since been elevated, but this example demonstrates the challenges that the UK Government will face in balancing a commitment to end free movement of people and ensuring continued access to EU research funding.
Best case scenario
The best case scenario for medical research is likely to be an 'associate' membership, where we gain access to funding by awarding a significant financial contribution for less influence on the EU's research priorities.
Overall, these arrangements are likely to be more restrictive than our current situation. The Government has rightly identified the key issues at play, and we urge them to prioritise access to EU funding schemes and to provide more detail in due course.
On the subject of researcher mobility, there was relatively little in this paper to put UK or EU researchers at ease about future cross-border working. The field of brain tumour research has benefited hugely from the ease of movement for researchers across the EU.
We therefore await further clarification from Government on how it seeks to make the UK a 'hub for international talent' after 2019.
More is needed
We are also pleased to see recognition of the benefit of EU regulation, specifically on clinical trials. However, the paper stopped short of identifying a solution to how regulation could be transferred after Brexit, and we need to see further details on this.
We believe the UK Government should seek to provide a compatible regulatory framework between the UK and the EU on crucial areas of regulation, notably the European Clinical Trials Regulation.
The position paper is a good first step, but it is crucial that the Government makes progress on these fundamental issues for the brain tumour research community over the coming months.