How might Brexit affect large facilities?

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Image: Shutterstock/speedimages

As the Brexit negotiations get underway, we’ll be following the developments closely and continuing to advocate for physics and science as the UK forms a new relationship with the EU.

We have four primary areas of concern: people, collaborations, funding and regulation. These were discussed in the recent science priorities for Brexit work coordinated by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, to which we contributed alongside 19 other organisations.

Shared research facilities are a vital component of UK physics

Research often requires specialised infrastructure, including large equipment and buildings. This takes time to build and can be extremely expensive, so countries often come together to spread the cost, including within established networks, consortia and organisations. There is also the added bonus of promoting collaborative research across borders.

The costs of opening a new facility are largely funded through an arrangement between the participating countries, but the EU often provides provide support through funding for activities such as planning, strategic coordination, networking and transnational access. Some facilities, including those described below, also benefit from EU research grants. Horizon 2020 will provide €2.4 bn to shared research facilities between 2014 and 2020.

The European Commission is involved with supporting the planning and coordination of pan-European facilities through the European Strategy Forum for Research infrastructures (ESFRI). This includes a roadmap that identifies new research infrastructures for the coming decades and aims to facilitate initiatives between countries. While it doesn’t allocate funding, ESFRI plays a big part in decision-making processes to achieve its aim of a “coherent and strategy-led approach to policymaking” on research infrastructures in Europe.

The UK hosts the headquarters of six pan-European research facilities and also hosts 10 further facilities headquartered in other European countries. The case studies below are provided as an insight into how three large facilities are linked to the EU. A recent Royal Society report delves into further detail on how these facilities are funded by the EU.

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Image: CERN

European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN)

CERN was one of Europe’s first joint ventures, founded in 1952. It’s located along the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

It now has 22 member states, but CERN also has associate members and non-members with observer status (these countries don’t make contributions but can access documents and attend meetings). The UK’s membership is coordinated and managed by STFC. It provides contract bids for UK firms, jobs and research positions for UK nationals.

CERN’s core research programme is funded by its member states, but it also benefits from EU research grants. CERN released a statement shortly after the referendum result clarifying that the international arrangement is separate from the EU and the UK will continue to be a full member. It highlighted some potential restrictions in the future, such as non-member states not being able to lead on European grants and having to make extra arrangements in order to work in Switzerland if there are restrictions to free movement. CERN has reiterated that UK nationals will continue to play an active role in the project once the UK has left the EU.

Image: Eurofusion
Image: Eurofusion

Joint European Torus (JET)

JET, cited at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) is the only operational experiment capable of producing fusion energy and holds the world record for fusion power production. Fusion projects at CCFE are funded jointly by Euratom – the European Atomic Energy Community, and the EPSRC. The UK receives around €56 m annually from Euratom on a contract that secures JET’s operation until 2018.

The UK hosts JET because it is a member of Euratom, so if the UK leaves Euratom, as the government intends to, JET’s future is uncertain. Concerns around the future of CCFE after Brexit have been discussed in more depth in Nature.

We’ve been working with the community to investigate the implications of leaving Euratom – look out for our policy briefing on the topic which is coming soon.

Image: ESS/Team Henning Larsen Architects
Image: ESS/Team Henning Larsen Architects

European Spallation Source (ESS)

The ESS is a pan-European project: it is hosted by two European nations (it is being built in Lund, Sweden and the data management and software centre will be in Copenhagen, Denmark) and it has 15 European nations as members. ESS aims to be the world’s largest neutron source when it is turned on in 2019.

ESS has a construction budget of €1.84 bn and has received in-kind contributions from 24 countries, totalling 40.5% of this budget. The project has also received EU funding via the European Regional Development Fund. A programme of contributions from the UK totalling £165 m gives this country an important role in designing the project, by directly bidding to ESS for work, winning contracts to supply elements of the UK’s and other nations’ in-kind contributions.

Potential issues for UK participation in international facilities post-Brexit

  • There might be changes to UK immigration policy and restrictions to freedom of movement of people between the UK and the EU. This could cause additional bureaucracy and even prevent researchers accessing facilities
  • UK facilities may not have the same access to funding from the EU
  • UK researchers working at EU facilities may not be able to lead on EU-funded projects
  • The UK may not have the same level of participation and influence in the next framework programme (FP9 is expected to start in 2021) as in Horizon 2020

As our chief executive Professor Paul Hardaker wrote in his update to members in January, we’re continuing to build an evidence base on how a new relationship with the EU will affect UK physics and science as a whole.

We’ll be continuing to advocate for the needs of physics, with regards to access to facilities and our other priorities, including at the high-level forum to ensure these are considered at a high-level during the negotiations.

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Florence Greatrix

Florence Greatrix

Florence is an IOP policy officer looking at issues relating to the UK leaving the EU. She came to the Institute from the RSC and has an MSc in oceanography from Southampton
Florence Greatrix
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