UK risks losing contract for new climate research centre because of Brexit

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The UK is at risk of losing the contract for the expansion of a flagship European weather research centre based in Reading because of Brexit.

The European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) has been based in Berkshire for the last 45 years but its future EU-funded activities are now the subject of an international battle.

At stake is a planned new facility with up to 250 jobs, and nine countries – including France, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Italy – are vying for the business.

“As a consequence of Brexit, a competition to relocate all ECMWF EU-funded activities from Reading in the UK to an EU member state is taking place during 2020,” an official briefing note from one member state said.

ECMWF, which is also a key body for climate-change research, is backed by 34 countries, 22 of them EU member states.

In addition to weather forecasting, it operates a number of EU-funded programmes, including two services from the EU’s Copernicus satellite Earth-observation programme, monitoring the atmosphere and the climate crisis.

The Copernicus satellites map everything from plankton densities to colonies of penguins in Antarctica to the disintegration of the Spalte glacier in Greenland.

Ireland confirmed this week it was bidding to host the new facility, while a Dutch bid to host it in Utrecht has been dropped for financial reasons, a local politician revealed.

The battle for the Brexit spoils has echoes of the post-referendum contests over the future of the European Medicines Agency, which moved from Canary Wharf in London along with 900 jobs, and the European Banking Authority, which has moved to Paris because of Brexit.

While the UK is keen to see the new facility, which will house up to 250 staff, established alongside the HQ in Berkshire, it is not clear if it will be eligible to bid.

One source thought this could depend on whether the UK seals a deal to continue involvement in key EU environment and climate research programmes such as Copernicus after Brexit.

The deadline for submissions for the weather centre contract is 1 October, by which time trade talks are not expected to be completed.

Reading won the bidding for the weather centre in 1975 because of its proximity to the Met Office (which moved from Bracknell to Exeter in 2003) and the University of Reading.

A spokeswoman for the centre said: “This new facility, which unlike the data centre in Bologna, Italy, is mainly about offices rather than hosting our new supercomputers, needs to be in a location compatible with all key European Union’s funding policies relevant for ECMWF.

“The UK has expressed an interest in hosting this new facility and is in any case continuing to host our headquarters in Reading,” she said.

Bids to host the new offices are expected from Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain.

ECMWF is considered one of the world leaders in weather research using global datasets of the recent history of the atmosphere, land surface and oceans.

It recently showed how the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air in several European cities had increased as lockdowns were eased.

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