Heightened multi-lateral collaboration fever as Brexit mitigating strategy

Heightened multi-lateral collaboration fever as Brexit mitigating strategy

Brexit or no Brexit: further integration of UK science into the European research fabric is underway.

Too much is at stakes in European science for people managing research—particularly in the UK—to leave it up to politicians to determine their future. Brexit or no Brexit, there are signs that further integration of the UK scientific activities into the European research fabric is underway. Indeed, universities across the UK are establishing new partnership deals in education and research with European and Commonwealth universities. Whether this move will allow UK research institutions to remain attractive to European collaborators remains to be seen.

Clearly, the task at hand is colossal, as the scientific community is not a monolithic entity. Existing networks of topic-specific communities will need to self-organise, more than ever, to retain links to UK-based collaborators. This, may, however, not be sufficient. Having collaborators across Europe, is only meaningful when there is joint transnational funding, or when, national funds are coordinated with some European funds to ensure optimal efficiency in the way such funds are being spent.

The missing contribution of the UK to the overall European budget—which represented 12.5% in 2015—could make a palpable hole in the next framework programme. Yet, such figure appears less impactful in a post-Brexit scenario when considering that the UK attracted 15.5% of the EU funding. The country was net beneficiary mainly through ERC and Marie Curie grants—which, in effect, finances the mobility of brains into UK labs, not so much budget for decentralised collaborations.

In this context, there is a stimulus to mitigate potential collateral damages of Brexit in research and academic circles in the UK. Universities are therefore looking for new business models to operate on education and research fronts. Meanwhile, other counties among the 27 remaining Member States see an opportunity to regain more funding for their own labs.

Collaboration fever

Despite recent political discourses pointing to a softer Brexit than anticipated, fear of the consequences of a hard Brexit on research has sent UK universities and research councils on a frantic quest. The driver of such fever has been the high uncertainty over the future conditions of mobility and access to EU funding sources, which will be part of the Brexit negotiations over the coming months.

“We have strong concern about how we are going to function,” said Alex Halliday, Physical Secretary and Vice-President of the UK Royal Society, during a recent debate at the Royal Institution entitled How Brexit will affect science, in May 2017. “We have to come up with some new way of stating the importance of the European ideal for science.” Another panellist, Ole Petersen, Director of the Cardiff University – Academia Europaea Knowledge Hub, concurred: “Science is not about specific scientific tools. It is also a question of values.” These values include internationalisation of research collaborations.

For the Royal Society’s Halliday, another issue to effectively respond to the potential damages of Brexit is to adopt a change of attitude: “We need to move on from the anger.” The answer to such anger towards Brexit, so far, has been a heighten activity seeking to enhance research and education collaboration. This is an attempt to retain the influence of UK research scientists and the attractiveness of the country’s university as education providers within Europe and beyond, regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations. Indeed, UK universities have too much to lose should their prestige go on a downward slope, as it is the carrot that attracts thousands of non-EU students every year to pay hefty fees for their education at UK universities. A business now endangered by the prospect of Brexit.

On the education side, many UK institutions, have already started to further strengthen links with both European academic organisations. No better proof is the moves by Warwick University and Oxford University and French-based universities such as the Université Paris Seine, representing a community of ten universities in the French capital, currently building an international campus. It is only too tempting to imagine an Oxford campus by the Seine, not exclusively by the Thames. If such move offers a continuation of the education business these institution are prospering by, they do not bring any guarantee of being magnets for research funding.

On the research side, UK institutions also started to rekindle bilateral links with Commonwealth universities and are looking further afield in Asia. This poses the risk of such institutions appearing less keen on EU research partnerships, according to Rolf Tarrach, President of the European University Association. Witnessing UK collaboration shifting to non EU countries, Tarrach says: “This can work but it will demotivate people from European countries to collaborate [in research] with the UK.” What is more, Brexit is seen positively by smaller countries hoping to entice their scientists who had emigrated to the UK back to their own countries. In reality, the consequences may be that researchers now integrate well-funded laboratories in Scandinavian countries, Germany, or The Netherlands, instead of the UK.

In this era of uncertainty, the impression the UK gives to its neighbours is quite clear: “Brexit from the EU perspective is like a distant family member has died and you are not sure you are going to go to the funeral,” said Aidan Gilligan, CEO of Brussels-based consultancy SciComm – Making Sense of Science, at the Royal Institution Brexit meeting in May 2017.

Irish agility as mitigation tool

On the frontline of the potential collateral damage of Brexit is Irish science due to its intricate web of research collaborations with the UK. Over the past few months, meetings are flourishing all over Dublin, enticing people to prepare for Brexit and mitigate its consequences. The main research funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), has been furthering its existing strategy to weave a tighter network of collaborations with UK research councils such as EPSRC and BBSRC. The move started before Brexit, explains Mark Ferguson, Director General, SFI. He points out that the idea was to create joint research teams in the UK and Ireland, who can compete for EU funding. “This is a good thing to do regardless of the final results of the Brexit negotiations,” he says. However, the uncertainties remaining on the condition of mobility and access to EU funding sources do not bode well for funding attractiveness of such partnership.

Clearly, Ireland is exploring every possible avenue to become a magnet for scientific talent. Ferguson, during the RI Brexit debate, reminded people that the country has lost many of its scientists to emigration in the past but that the country was now open to welcome scientists interested in immigrating. “Anybody who is thinking of leaving, we’d like them to think of Ireland,” said Ferguson. This opportunistic approach shows that European integration of research activity will not succeed without free movement of scientists. Yet, this does not solve the issue of access to pooled European funding sources via the Framework Programmes.

Further European integration

History will tell whether the Brexit vote and the accession to power of Mr Trump and his isolationist politics that do not serve scientific international collaborations well, are not, after all, one of the biggest opportunity for the members of the European Union. Indeed, it may give them an opportunity to further their integration, be it at research, economic and diplomatic levels. In this context, it appears that many British scientists may become some of the most fervent supporters of the European project.

Sabine Louët

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