Picking up the pieces for research post Brexit

Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt appear fixated on securing Brexit by October 31. For Johnson this is a “do or die” commitment and Hunt has set an even earlier no-deal deadline of September 30. So a question that both aspirants to Downing Street must be prepared to answer is: what will withdrawing from the EU so quickly do for the competitiveness and standing of the UK’s research sector?

With Augar’s recommendations now laid out in plain sight and in a holding pattern until the (delayed) spending review, the sector’s attention will increasingly turn to Brexit and how the decisions found within the government’s exit plans link to the achievement of its ambitious Industrial Strategy, and the parallel commitment to investing 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and development. The current state of affairs indicate that both of these priorities are under some risk.

Weak commitments and uncertain futures

In recent times, the government’s enthusiasm to continue being involved in the Horizon Europe scheme seems to have dimmed. Responding to a written question about the future of the UK’s association to the scheme, universities minister Chris Skidmore only went as far as expressing interest “in the option” to fully associate to the Horizon Europe programme.

This is perceived by many as a weak commitment and reflects poorly on a government that is characterised as being unsure of what it is doing to secure Europe-wide collaborations beyond Brexit. To the Russell Group’s research policy lead, Joanna Burton, “language and certainty matters” a significant amount in this context. She points to some worrying signs within the sector of UK-based researchers relocating to other European countries because they are not confident in their future prospects here.

Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International also laments the rapidly declining UK share in total Horizon 2020 funding. From a peak of 15.7 per cent in February 2017, the UK’s part fell to 14.5 per cent at September 2018 and currently stands at 13.4 per cent. To put things in perspective, this drop of 2.4 per cent in total funding is equivalent to a loss of 1.8 billion euros in lost funding for the UK research base. These figures will not come as a surprise to those researchers who have lost out on winning bids for worthy projects.

However, even in the case of a no-deal scenario, it is possible for the UK to associate with Horizon Europe as a “third country” from 2021. Burton notes that third country association will undoubtedly come with a high price tag, but it is still considered preferable to anything that could be developed as a domestic alternative – or to the prospect of the UK having no involvement in EU-funded research activity. Sixteen associated countries including Norway, Switzerland and Turkey have already set a precedent for how these interactions can occur successfully.

Given that Horizon Europe legislation within the European Commission is still the subject of live debate, and unlikely to be adopted until next year, UK rhetoric needs to shift towards a deeper desire to work with European partners and negotiation efforts need to be ramped up to ensure that the UK can benefit from future EU framework programmes.

This week has also seen a very welcome increase in research funding, including an additional £45 million for quality-related research funding. The overall investment appears to be consistent with the pursuit of the 2.4 per cent target. However, if this new money is to come at a time where the research sector could lose access to the Horizon Europe programme or that it delays negotiations in being associated with the scheme, the sector’s jubilation will be very short lived. The value of being linked to European partners is as significant, at times even more so, as ensuring a strong and sustainable domestic research base. Because research is about looking outward and not just within.

It’s much more than money

Close to six billion pounds has been invested through the Horizon Europe programme since 2014, but researchers feel deeply that ties to their European colleagues and academic centres go far deeper than an exchange of funds. The very nature of research endeavour requires academics to collaborate across disciplines, perspectives and contexts. Something that many in the UK research community feel could compromise ties to their European peers by where the country lands post Brexit.

Parallel to the government’s ongoing Brexit negotiations, Chris Skidmore has delivered a series of flagship speeches outlining how the government plans to achieve its 2.4 per cent target.

In the first speech, he spoke about attracting and retaining academic talent. To be specific, the minister outlined an aspiration to attract an additional 260,000 researchers. But by not being a part of the Horizon Europe mechanism this audacious goal becomes harder to meet in a meaningful way – because the availability of high-profile pan-European funding is a huge consideration for talented international researchers who may choose to work in the UK.

His second speech dealt with international collaborations. Launching the international research and innovation strategy, the minister shows an evident appetite to position the UK as a global hub for research activity. He emphasised the need for stronger bilateral ties to be developed with China, South Korea and the US. However, the fact remains that most of the UK’s research activity relies upon its existing collaborations with the EU27. Leveraging the the shared capabilities found within the EU block allows the UK to be even more competitive with other parts of the world. Building new global ties need not come at the expense of maintaining and strengthening the existing relationships with European countries.

The third speech was a highly persuasive argument in support of emerging technologies. It would be of no surprise to the minister Skidmore that some of the world’s most pioneering tech innovations have emerged from Europe and specifically from the UK’s alliance with member nations. There is one more speech to come and it will be interesting to observe whether the minister chooses to say more about this critical relationship to the UK’s research efforts.

The dissenting view

Sir Noel Malcolm wrote earlier in the year critiquing the lobbying approach pursued by Universities UK and the Russell Group. He characterised their joint letter to government as an “exaggeration” that misrepresented the implications of Brexit for research. As Malcolm explains, even if the UK leaves without a withdrawal agreement, the setback to research will be only be temporary and could quickly be corrected by future, more specific agreements that are established between the UK and the EU members.

Other commentators also point out, quite correctly, that losing access to the Horizon Europe programme does not mean that the UK will lose all research contact with European partners. There are many collaborations that are underway, and that will no doubt be established, which fall outside the Horizon scheme. And if it were to be the case that the UK’s membership to the Horizon programme ceases then this must not give reason to be complacent in pursuing new collaborations.

In all of these scenarios, the challenge for the next Prime Minister remains the same. Evidence is clear that the gains are stronger when the UK research community comes together with European partners. It also follows that a high performing research and innovation sector is critical to the achievement of many of the ambitions set out by both Johnson and Hunt. How they enact on these ambitions – beginning with their Brexit negotiations – is shaping up to be one of their most critical tests.

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