No deal on post-Brexit data rules ‘deeply problematic’ for UK science, researchers warn

As trade talks go to the wire, former science minister says UK could end up with ‘third best option’ on access to Horizon Europe science programme

By Éanna Kelly

Failure to strike a deal with the EU on cross-border data flows could leave UK research in a “deeply problematic” place after the Brexit transition year ends, researchers warned on Monday.

Without a deal, the UK will need an ‘adequacy ruling’ from the European Commission demonstrating its data protection standards are up to scratch with Europe’s GPDR legislation.

“Without an adequacy agreement, it will become much more challenging to do research,” said Beth Thompson, head of policy and advocacy on UK and EU at the research charity Wellcome Trust, speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Government, a think tank.

Thompson said that while researchers deal mainly in anonymised data, sometimes they may be required to process personal data.

However, it is still unclear whether personal data will be allowed to flow from the EU to the UK in the same way as when the UK was part of the bloc.

Until data adequacy is awarded, UK entities that depend on sending and receiving personal data from the EU will have to resort to alternative arrangements, which could add a considerable price tag added to a growing stack of GDPR red tape.

Thompson warned that the administrative burden of this extra bundle of GDPR bureaucracy on labs and universities could be quite onerous. No deal would also see UK researchers lose access to much of the EU funding that is currently available to them.

The intervention from scientists came as talks on the future EU-UK relationship go down to the wire. Officials are making a last ditch push this week to solve a number of well-worn issues around fishery access and the level playing field for competition rules, to ensure that neither side can gain an advantage by deregulating over time.

Thompson called for a “research-specific carve-out” should no overarching EU-UK deal on data be possible. “There has to be some way to facilitate or oil the wheels on this,” she said. 

“It’s really essential,” agreed Richard Torbett, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Torbett represents around 120 companies that perform extensive research in the UK and Europe. “We do clinical trials that are usually not confined to the island of Britain. Without data adequacy, it [would be] incredibly complicated,” he said.

Third best option

The UK is also negotiating with the EU for association membership of the €85 billion Horizon Europe research programme, due to get underway next year. This status would see the UK follow Switzerland, Norway and 14 other non-EU countries in gaining many of the same rights as EU member states.

“Even in the event we don’t strike a deal [with the EU], the government has made it clear that it would hope to participate in [Horizon Europe] programmes open to third countries,” said former science minister Jo Johnson.

Johnson, who is the brother of prime minister Boris Johnson, said this would ultimately be a “small consolation” and the “third best option” after EU membership and Horizon Europe association. As a third country, the UK would no longer be eligible for three of the EU’s major funding programmes: the European Research Council, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie action grants and the European Innovation Council.

Talks on UK access to Horizon Europe have not been fractious compared with other big arguments on the future relationship, but nor have they been plain sailing.

The UK government is worried that it could end up as a significant net contributor to European research funding, with little say over how it is administered, and little guarantee of winning a similar number of grants that it managed as an EU member.

Still, allowing the UK to continue to participate in Horizon Europe would be in the EU’s interest, given the UK’s strength in research, said Pascal Lamy, former director general of the World Trade Organisation, who has previously advised on Horizon Europe. Even if, as Lamy noted, Brexit had inflicted “quite a lot of damage” to the “knitted tissue” of the European Research Area.”

Failure to secure associate status to Horizon Europe would leave the UK rushing to create replacement research programmes, Johnson said.

And in comments that risk upsetting research groups already grappling with the huge disruption brought on by the pandemic, the former minister suggested the lack of a developed Plan B was the failure of “the community” rather than government alone.

“The [research] community hasn’t really engaged as meaningfully as it ought to have done,” he said.

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