Brexit and European Funding – It’s Not All About the Money

by Silke Blohm on Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The potential impact on international collaboration and research excellence

For years research has seen a large increase in international collaboration measured by international co-authorship, citation rates and joint patent applications. A whole sector has worked on establishing worldwide standards of best practice and mechanisms to exchange data, materials, results and not at last bright students, post-docs and academics all facilitated by us research managers around the planet. Research has bridged time zones, continents and cultures and didn’t stop at boundaries.

UK research in particular is recognized for its international competitiveness and collaborative research. The Economist calls Britain the research powerhouse stating that of its just 1% of the world’s population, it has 4% of its researchers and produces 16% of the world’s most ‘highly cited journal articles. In international rankings leading UK universities are often only overtaken by the likes of Harvard, Stanford or MIT. For the first time ever this summer Oxford even reached the top of the annual Times Higher Education (THE) ranking put serial winner California Institute of Technology (CalTech) into second place. Somehow though celebrations weren’t quite as joyous this year as one could have expected.

And this is due to ‘Brexit’, a term virtually unknown a couple of years ago, which has become the theme of the year, at least in the UK. A public referendum consulting its citizens on whether or not they wanted to remain a member state of the European Union on 23rd June this year turned from what seemed to be a predominantly rhetoric question for political gains into political turmoil that nobody seemed to have expected to that degree. Most of all it appeared that those that had voted and promoted ‘leave’ didn’t actually have an implementation plan when they somewhat surprisingly got what they had lobbied for, whilst ‘remain’ voters mostly had ignored the fact that something could go ‘wrong’ in the the first place.

While some cornerstones of a timeline of Britain’s potential exit from the EU have emerged in the meantime indicating that an exit from the EU would not seem likely before spring 2019 if at all, the university sector is licking its wounds and trying to put in place some damage limitation.

British universities have received around 8.8 billion Euros under the seventh framework program (FP7) from 2007 to 2013. For many institutions EU funding makes more than a quarter of their external research income. And, as ‘remain’ campaigners highlighted more than just once, for every Pound paid into the joint funding pot the UK gets a lion share of around 1.3 Pounds back – a clear indicator of research excellence in the UK but also a non-negligible economic parameter for institutions.

On the morning after the referendum debates started on whether or not UK institutions would still be entitled to apply for funding, whether funding for grants awarded was secure. And maybe slightly less expected European partners suddenly got cold feet; what if a UK partner would drop out half-way through a project? A disaster, even more so if they were the lead institution. The newly formed department BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) apparently concerned even created an email address to receive evidence of any post-Brexit impact on science and research (research@bis.gsi.gov.uk), and so did many lobby groups desperately trying to change the course of action.

Not quite as quickly as hoped but still within a couple of months the UK government has in the meantime issued substantial reassurance to UK institutions that they would underwrite funding for any and all applications and funding under H2020 even if the projects would continue beyond a potential leaving date – a message meant to not only calm British universities but also to reassure European partners who had started to turn their back on more than just one occasion.

While for many outside the HE sector the problem therewith seemed sorted, the benefit of European funding is by no means only financially. Leaving its undoubted reputational gains aside, at the core of the funding scheme are other principles guaranteed by the European Union as for example the free movement of citizens. This principle has been the enabler of many of the successful collaborations, be it under the Erasmus+ scheme, Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions or large collaborative calls.

At its opening ceremony on the 1st September this year the founding director of the prestigious Francis Crick Institute in London, Paul Nurse, highlighted that more than 50% of their post docs would come from other EU member states. Being able to relocate without visa applications, no hurdles in finding jobs for spouses and simply sending kids to the local schools have fostered the international environment that has boosted UK research over the last decades. Not surprisingly there is significant concern within the sector not only about continuity of funding but also potential restrictions on movement of staff. Many see a potentially very damaging threat to research excellence of UK institutions by the latter. Any restrictions in recruiting outstanding staff would inevitably affect the quality of research conducted. There is also a danger that institutions might lose their key academics who might be moving to other (EU) countries in order to maintain their international research groups.

The new UK government is sending out clear signals that it won’t guarantee these arrangements unless they get in return what they want, whereas the rest of Europe clearly opposes what they call ‘cherry picking’. Even worse than for residents of EU member states future access to UK HE might become for international students. The tone on fighting immigration is increasingly sharp and quotas for international student numbers are openly discussed. What many perceive as appalling at any humanitarian level of course would also not be without impact on the economic situation of UK universities who heavily rely on income through tuition fees nor would it guarantee that necessarily the brightest students get desired places in the lecture theaters.

And there is something else about Horizon 2020 that is quite unique, certainly from a UK perspective. European funding schemes, in particular the ERC, support so-called ‘blue sky’ research which many consider an essential aspect of conducting research. An equivalent in the UK is not easily identifiable which raises huge concerns over the impact on quality and disruptiveness this might have on UK research.

Funding under the European framework programs has been one of the main drivers of collaborative and international research with many of their schemes explicitly requesting participation from more than just one country, often even specific regions of Europe or the world. European framework programs generally allow so-called third countries, i.e. non-member and non-associated states to join their schemes as unfunded partner. Increasingly, dedicated joint funding calls are launched with other main international funders. Ironically, while the European funding is becoming more and more global, UK research might suddenly find itself on an unexpected and undesired sideline. Many comfort themselves that after all we are talking about global collaborations and while interactions within Europe might potential go stale for a while, many call now for an increased effort to foster other partnerships. However, in order to succeed UK universities will need to boost the current climate and show that they can still offer a conducive research environment to foster research excellence.

So while the first dust has settled and ‘business as usual’ under EU funding rules might seem secured for the next couple of years, questions remain on whether UK universities can continue to drive global research, as they have done in the past.

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For an overview also see:
http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/brexit