Academia expresses post Brexit concerns

4 mins read

Since the announcement in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament in May 2015 that a referendum would be held on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union (EU), there have been considerable expressions of concern about the potential effect of a withdrawal on the country’s research and development efforts.

When the country found out on 24 June 2016 that it had voted in favour of leaving the EU, the Brexit era opened. Yet, a year later, negotiations on just how the UK will leave the EU have only just started – and the UK’s continuing participation in European research initiatives is open to question.

Modern European research programmes can be traced back to the mid 1980s, when the Eureka project was launched as a way to raise the productivity and competitiveness of European businesses through the application of technology. One of the first initiatives launched under the Eureka umbrella was JESSI – the Joint European Submicron Silicon Initiative. JESSI, which received €3.8billion from the EU, was an eight year programme intended to rebuild the EU’s competence in microelectronics.

In parallel, so called Framework Programmes (FP) were launched. The first – FP1 – started in 1985, looking to support and foster Europe wide research. The latest FP is called Horizon 2020 and its €80bn budget addresses three pillars – Excellent Science, Industrial Leadership and Societal Challenges.

Yet, in the early days of the Framework Programmes, as well as JESSI, UK academic institutions didn’t take up the opportunities available with anything resembling enthusiasm. How have things changed since then?

Professor Mark Spearing is vice president, research and enterprise, with Southampton University. He said that involvement in European research started to gather momentum around 10 years ago. “Uptake certainly began to get higher,” he noted, “and EU research became a significant source of funding for UK universities. But connections with EU universities also became significant in terms of performing high quality research and the outputs from that work, such as patents.

“Framework 7 and Horizon 2020 have brought wider engagement, but European collaboration was a niche activity before that.”

What put people off in the past? “Participating in Framework 6, for example, was a significant loss making activity,” Prof Spearing reflected. “Previous programmes were complicated and not worth getting involved in. Now, we can keep teams together and that has positive effects on long term collaboration and there’s a trust which brings quality outputs. And there are some areas of research where you need broad collaboration in order to get impact.”

Southampton’s researchers publish around 5000 academic papers a year. While the US is the largest partner in this activity, Germany, France and Italy are major partners. “The EU matters to us,” Prof Spearing said.

Southampton is one of 24 UK universities comprising the Russell Group. According to Prof Spearing, Russell Group universities receive 18% of their research funding from European sources. “This is mostly via Framework 7,” he noted, “but also from European Research Council initiatives.”

Southampton receives about £20million of funding a year for research. “This covers the whole of the University,” Prof Spearing said. “The UK Research Council is our main funding, followed by the EC. Overall, the amount of funding has increased and the EU Research Council has been helpful, with a straightforward process that rewards research.”

Prof Spearing also pointed out the international nature of staffing at Southampton. “Some 14% of our staff come from overseas,” he said. “Of these, 900 come from the EU. And we have a similar number of students at all levels. Meanwhile, we also participate in the Erasmus programme, with about 500 students coming to Southampton from across Europe and about 350 of our students going to European institutions. All of this,” he asserted, “is positive in terms of how we operate.”

In 2014/15, UK universities as a whole attracted more than £836m in research grants and contracts from EU sources. This, according to representative body Universities UK, equated to 14.2% of all income from research grants and contracts in that year. Of the £836m, 87% came from EU government bodies.

The body noted that EU research funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, £1.86bn for the UK economy and contributes more than £1bn to GDP, according to figures published last year.

Post Brexit
In its call to politicians in advance of the recent General Election, the Russell Group noted ‘the UK’s position as a world leader in science, research and higher education depends on its ability to work with partners across Europe and beyond’. It also noted a number of key priorities for negotiations with the EU:

Guaranteeing the rights of current EU citizens studying and working in the UK

Ensuring UK universities can continue to attract, recruit and retain talented staff and students from across the EU without bureaucratic visa burdens.

Ensuring the UK has full access to and influence over Horizon 2020 and future EU research and innovation programmes, as well as continued participate in the Erasmus+ programme.

Like the Russell Group, Universities UK is keen for the Government to secure an effective post-Brexit settlement for universities.

Prof Spearing noted: “Participation in EU funded programmes, access to students and staff from around the world is important to the quality of research undertaken at UK universities.

“It will be up to the Government to find a way for the UK to continue participating in the programmes offered by the EU and I would be surprised if there’s not something which will offer this. At worst, it will be a bilateral relationship, with some form of associate membership. I’m optimistic that UK universities as a whole wouldn’t lost everything that currently benefits them from EU membership.”

From Prof Spearing’s point of view, the biggest issue at the moment is uncertainty. “Dealing with this and not knowing what the outcome will be for a couple of years is difficult, but relationships will continue.

“Having talked to ministers and attended Russell Group meetings, I’m confident the Government understands the importance of the UK’s science base and higher education sector. EU membership has brought good things,” he concluded.

Last year, the previous Government said it would guarantee funding for research bids in European projects, even post Brexit. Brexit nothwithstanding, it also announced an additional £4.7bn of R&D funding by 2021, to be delivered by the National Productivity Investment Fund. Part of this money will support the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – a cross disciplinary fund intended to encourage collaboration between business and the UK’s science base.

Whether the new Government will be able honour these commitments remains to be seen, but there seems to be a realisation that, whether the UK is a member of the EU or not, its science base remains a fundamental contributor to the economy.