Only by keeping close ties with Europe can UK research remain globally competitive

Clinging on for now. romantitov/www.shutterstock.com

The best ideas do not respect national boundaries. Great research and scholarship has always relied on cross-border interactions. Rivalries, such as that between Newton and Leibnitz over the invention of calculus, and collaborations, such as those at the CERN project in Switzerland involve people from different nations working on common problems. Since at least the philosopher John Duns Scotus in the 13th century, the mobility of scholars has been a major channel of progress.

The UK’s vote to leave the EU on June 23 poses a challenge to this status quo. The UK will now have to work hard at exploring new ways of belonging in Europe, because in recent decades, EU mobility, collaboration and funding has lain at the heart of the country’s global research excellence.

Looking elsewhere

The referendum result leaves researchers with acute uncertainty about the commitment of the UK to maintain the open environment in which the best research can take place and into which the best researchers are recruited. Unlike many countries, the UK’s recruitment procedures are very open and focused on attracting talent, rather than simply favouring success in a national competition. Many fine people have been able to build whole careers here.

So the uncertainty over the status of non-UK nationals from the EU and European Economic Area is especially disquieting. They make up 16% of academic staff in UK universities and in certain departments it is far more: more than 50% of professors in LSE’s economics department for example.

We know of and have heard of colleagues who are being offered jobs elsewhere in Europe, and we know of prospective job candidates who have turned down positions in the UK since the referendum. At this early stage it is difficult to say whether the humanities and social sciences are more affected than other disciplines in this way but the mood music in the community is very uncertain.

The UK is not as attractive a place for researchers as it was before the referendum. This may be just an initial shock and it may all die down, but on the other hand a reputation once lost is very hard to regain. We have many competitors overseas and the best people move to the most flourishing environments to work.

The language used in the referendum against migrants was felt as a personal attack by many staff at all levels within the academic community, as well as by students. Facing such emotions, it is understandable that many may re-evaluate what they thought they knew about working in UK research.

Cementing collaboration

When it comes to collaboration, UK research is internationally competitive in part because it seeks out the best international partners: 60% of our international collaborations are with our EU partners, and in the EU’s Framework Programme 7, for 23 of the 27 member states, collaborations with UK-based researchers ranked the highest or second most frequent.

Since the referendum, our European partners are noticeably asking us to stand aside as principal investigators or step out of consortia bids entirely.

The government has said that nothing has changed legally. This is true. But partners in the EU are evaluating their options. They may decide, from a “safety first” perspective, that collaborations with the UK come with too big a risk

Collaborations under threat. Lightspring/www.shutterstock.com

One simple solution would be for the UK government to guarantee or underwrite every application to the EU’s flagship Horizon 2020 research programme from now until a new relationship with the EU is stabilised. This would mean promising to pay for research if European funding is withdrawn at a later stage. Legally, if nothing has changed, then the government ought to be happy to put its best foot forward in the short term, and thereafter, negotiate accordingly in order to support its world-leading research base. Here is a challenge that the government needs to meet squarely head on if it values national research excellence and its contribution to economic competitiveness and creativity.

Funding at risk

Until now, the UK has been very successful in gaining EU research funding. Such success should not be punished. In the humanities and social sciences, UK-based researchers have won a third of all advanced grants and starting grants ever awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). This is an incredible achievement – a sign of established research excellence.

There is no UK equivalent of the ERC in terms of scope and size so what will happen if we leave the EU and cannot access funding streams such as Horizon 2020? The success and international standing of the humanities and social sciences needs to be protected.

From our rough calculations using data on past and future research allocations in the UK, and data sent to us by the ERC, the value of the awards won by UK-based researchers each year from 2007-15 from the ERC is equivalent to 23% of the annual budgets of Economic and Social Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Council combined. It was around 8.5% for the life sciences and physical sciences and engineering.

As the government negotiates its new relationship with the EU, it should realise that until now the EU has provided resources that do not exist in the UK. These instruments may well need to be created anew in the UK. If that is the case, the government will need to take some clear and prominent steps to ensure the UK remains bound to and relevant to the global scholarly endeavour if it wants the country to remain attractive to researchers from around the world.

The challenge Britain now faces is one that raises risks for its purpose, identity and capability to compete internationally and remain relevant at home. Business as usual it cannot be. Of course, new international collaborations will be sought and nurtured by UK researchers and institutions. UK research will not remain paralysed after Brexit, but it does not make sense to walk away from the European interactions that have served us so well so far.

This article was updated on August 8 to correct a currency discrepancy in the ERC funding percentages, which have now been amended.