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Simon Maxwell

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(Researchers) Surviving Brexit

This piece was originally commissioned in August by a publication which in the end decided to take a different tack. In the spirit of the circular economy, here it is, recycled.

 

Nothing alarms a group of researchers more than the sound of a funding window slamming shut. This is especially true when the window is large, the researchers in question have been reasonably successful in securing funds, and the funding available encourages cross-national team work that might otherwise be more difficult.

In the case of the UK vote to leave the EU, the window slamming shut is Horizon 2020, a fund of 80bn euros for the period 2014-2020. UK researchers have won about 15% of the funding. And, by the nature of the programme, many new collaborations have been forged with partners in Europe.

‘Alarm’ may be the least of it. Seven National Academies have issued a joint statement saying that Brexit challenges the excellence of the UK’s research and innovation. The President of the Royal Society has said the future of UK prosperity may be at stake. Individual researchers have complained about being frozen out of projects, in what the Guardian describes as a ‘wave of discrimination against UK researchers’. It is not exactly reassuring that the Commissioner in charge of EUEuropean Union research, Carlos Moedas, says that the referendum changes nothing about eligibility ‘for the time being’.

There is certainly much to be concerned about, not least the ability of UK research institutions to recruit and retain high calibre researchers from EUEuropean Union countries. However, and just before we all succumb to despair and/or emigrate, there are perhaps a few points to remember and a few reasons to be optimistic.

First, this is EUEuropean Union funding we are talking about, a source notorious for being very bureaucratic, needing matched funding, and imposing high transactions costs, not least in order to secure all those cross-EU collaborations. I’ve never carried out a comparative ranking of researcher preferences with regard to sources of funding, but my guess is that foundations, UK Research Councils and Government Departments would all outrank the EU. I know that when I worked in research institutes, we tended to avoid EUEuropean Union options, mainly because it was hard to raise matched funding.  Any research units like to try a ranking over tea one Friday afternoon?

Second, it is true that the UK has been reasonably successful in winning grants from Horizon 2020, but actually the resources raised have not been significantly higher, I don’t think, than our contribution. Overall, and without entering into detail about rebates and gross versus net contributions, and never mind exchange rates, the UK contributes about 15% of the EUEuropean Union budget. If UK researchers continue to win 15% of Horizon 2020 funding, as they did in the first year, then it looks like we more or less break even. Of course, that can only count as a ‘win’ if the money released by Brexit is channelled back into research. It is important that the Government has promised to underwrite funding for UK participants in Horizon 2020 – though what happens in the longer term is still unclear.

Third, it is worth remembering that Horizon 2020 is only one of many sources of income available for research in the UK. UK Universities receive about £850m a year from the EU. Research Councils UK spends about £3bn per year. Higher Education Funding Councils spend another £2bn. The Wellcome Trust spends about £2.5bn. There are many, many other sources of public and private funding. Nuffield, anyone? Gates? The private sector? The structure of UK research and innovation may tremble, but it is not about to collapse.

Fourth, with or without EUEuropean Union funding, collaborations with Europeans will continue. This is because there are deeply embedded networks of shared expertise, but also because UK researchers will necessarily continue to engage on ‘European’ issues. For those of us who work in international development, for example, research on trade policies affecting developing countries inevitably includes an important element looking at the Cotonou Agreement or the EU’s Everything But Arms free trade arrangement for least developed countries. Many institutions think of themselves – and are – global in their reach and not specifically focused on the UK. Organisations like EADI – the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes – will certainly continue to be important for UK researchers.

Finally, there are new opportunities available to researchers. In particular, in international development, the new aid strategy announced at the end of 2015 included announcements that will be of great interest to researchers: £1.5bn for a new Global Challenges Fund; £1bn for the Ross Fund to tackle infectious diseases; £70m for the Fleming Fund,  to fight antimicrobial resistance; and £90m for the UK Vaccines Fund. This is in addition to commitments to the International Climate Fund, which has a budget of £5.8 bn to spend by 2021, and to DFID’s own long-standing research portfolio.

Personally, I would have preferred us to remain in the EU, and did what I could during the referendum campaign. Who knows? There may still be a route-map to remain. In the meantime, however, a twin-track strategy is needed: to advocate for research funding in a post-Brexit world; and to take advantage of current opportunities to build the quality and resilience of the UK research effort.

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