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How will Brexit affect UK researchers and biotech SMEs?

July 13 2016

The outcome of the Brexit referendum was met with stunned surprise, after nearly 52% of the British people voted in favour of leaving the European Union. But what does this mean for UK researchers and biotech SMEs?

The ‘Brexit survey’ performed by Nature in March (1) showed that out of 907 UK researchers 83% believed that the UK should stay part of the EU. This result was not surprising, as the UK has always greatly benefited from participation in the EU funding programmes. For the period of 2007-2013, the UK reportedly received €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development, and innovation, while their own contribution was estimated to be around €5.4 billion (2, 3).  Obtaining an EU grant can greatly accelerate scientific research, promote scientific collaboration and spur the market introduction of innovative products.

One such example is Perspectum Diagnostics, a UK-based SME that was founded in 2012 and has received 4 European grants, the two largest obtained with the help of ttopstart. Dr. Rajarshi Banerjee, a pioneer in quantitative liver imaging for clinical use and Chief Executive of Perspectum Diagnostics said: ‘Our successes with the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument and Eurostars grants have really accelerated the development of Perspectum’s cutting-edge imaging technology. Global health problems, such as the epidemic of liver disease, need global partnerships. The fast development of our software solution for liver imaging in such a short time would not have been possible, if we were not part of the EU, working with the best scientists, engineers and physicians.  We are concerned about the future of an insular Britain, and actively looking into alternatives for future R&D. Funding via NIH (National Institutes of Health) and our recently incorporated US-subsidiary is one of these options, but this means that the clinical benefit from any medical advances will be part of the US system, and not from the EU anymore’

It is clear that UK researchers and biotech SMEs live in uncertainty, concerning how ‘Brexit’ could affect the funding they receive, their scientific collaborations across the EU and the free movement of the UK and EU researchers between the UK and the EU. Because the negotiations are ongoing, and the terms under which the UK will leave the EU are not set, nobody really knows what the impact of this decision will be on the UK scientific community and biotech SMEs. 

Short-term outlook:

The good news for the UK researchers and SMEs is that for the next 2 years (until Brexit is completed) nothing is likely to change from a legal perspective. The European Commission has confirmed that UK entities (universities, institutes and SMEs) continue to be eligible to participate and receive funding with the Horizon 2020 actions (4). Nevertheless, there is some fear amongst project coordinators that reviewers will depreciate UK involvement, substantiated by anecdotal evidence from UK’s Russel Group universities provided by the Guardian recently (5)

Long-term outlook:

The long-term impact of Brexit is difficult to estimate, since there is no precedent of an EU member leaving the EU.  However, it is clear that the impact on the scientific community (including funding for SMEs) will depend on the negotiations and the nature of the relationship that will be established between the UK and the EU.

Based on Switzerland, Israel and other countries participate in the EU funding, one possible scenario is that the UK will continue to receive funding from the EU with an ‘associated country’ status. For Switzerland, this is the case for only part of the Horizon 2020 actions (e.g.  the "Excellent Science" pillar, that contains the European Research Council, Future and Emerging Technologies, Research Infrastructures and the Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie actions) (6). For other calls of the Horizon 2020 programme, Switzerland participates with a ‘non-associated third country’ status, which means that the Swiss government finances the Swiss participants that are involved in Horizon 2020 collaborative projects (7).

In a recent informal meeting (29th of June, Brussels), the Heads of State or Government of 27 Member States, as well as the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, expressed their hope to have the UK as a close partner of the EU (i.e. as a third party); however, they clearly stated that such agreements can only be based on the right balance between obligations and rights (8). 

Whether the UK will manage to negotiate favourable terms and follow a model similar to Switzerland concerning EU funding and how reviewers will value UK involvement, remains to be seen.

Here at ttopstart, we closely follow these developments! If you are a UK -researcher or a UK-based SME and you are wondering about your funding options, please contact us.


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Zeta (Georgia) Xouri, PhD
+31(0)30 737 07 79