Brexit revisited: prospects for university research

Brexit revisited: prospects for university research

In November 2016, we hosted a panel debate exploring the impact of Brexit on the future of UK research.  Nearly twelve months on, is there greater clarity on the major issues affecting university research?  Do the opportunities and challenges remain the same, or has the landscape shifted?  Our distinguished panel of experts provided a lively lunchtime debate, with audience interaction.

Professor Ole Petersen, Academic Director of the Cardiff Hub, opened the debate.

Professor Donald DingwellProfessor Don Dingwell of the LMU Munich provided a perspective based on his experience as a former Secretary-General of the European Research Council and having spent 30 years in Germany.  He saw Brexit as a ”battle in the war” over whether science should be organised in large or small units.  Given the grand challenges we face are global, he felt the long-term winner would be the larger administrative groups, as smaller units made science weaker and more prone to vested interests.  He did not see Brexit as an isolated event but rather part of a long struggle, with the larger international bodies prevailing.  In the short term, UK science would be held back.

Dr PeterTindemansDr Peter Tindemans, Secretary General at EuroScience, agreed that UK science would lose out.  However, given the strength of the UK science base, Europe would also lose.  The position paper of the UK Government is vague on the exact nature of future collaboration.  The European Research Framework Programme (FP) model is based on open markets and free movement of people.  The future financial contribution demanded from the UK for participation in programmes is likely to be larger than it is now.  He saw no alternative to UK participation and believed some form of association was vital.  Although Europe was unlikely to negotiate on the financial contribution, there may be some leeway on freedom of movement.

Professor Nora de LeeuwProfessor Nora de Leeuw, Pro-Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University, opened by saying that the situation had not changed significantly for Cardiff and Wales since the last debate in 2016.  Attitudinal studies at the Welsh Governance Centre showed that views of Brexit had remained much the same amongst Remainers/Leavers.  She was pleased that Cardiff applications to Horizon 2020 remained steady and Marie-Curie Fellowship applications had gone up.  Overall, she was pleased with the persistence shown by the academic community, despite the risk of discrimination against UK applicants.  Anecdotal evidence suggested that academics may have been asked to step back from project coordination and therefore partnerships may come under strain.  The UK Government’s guarantee to underwite UK partipation in projects still held, despite potential threats to throw out UK partners if no deal was reached.  A recent speech by Commissioner Carlos Moedas had been positive about participation in FP9 and the UK should shape the programme whilst it was still a full member of the EU.

Professor de Leeuw concluded that the Russell Group and Universities UK were now engaged in producing a Plan B, with a number of scenarios.   Cardiff University’s new strategic plan puts an emphasis on staying international in outook, encouraging international staff and students, as well as urging Cardiff students to spend time abroad in work or study placements.

In open discussion, the main themes concerned international strategies, freedom of movement and maintaining influence.

Given China’s high investment levels in science, it was asked whether UK and Europe could afford a struggle that went on for the next decade.  Professor Dingwell agreed that talent and coordination were needed to make a success of the Brexit situation.  He spoke of the competences developed through networking in Europe and it was disappointing to see retrenchment at national level.  The main competition came from the US and China.

“To deal with China, be big” (Professor Donald Dingwell)

Nora de Leeuw added that Cardiff was looking at stronger links with global partners in Africa, South America and other parts of the world.  Peter Tindemans emphasised that the challenge for the UK was how to keep the best talent and money coming in.  Concerning students, the key issue was fees, now that EU students would be expected to pay more.

Regarding freedom of movement, there was concern that politicians were using research as a pawn in a large chess game.  Donald Dingwell felt there was no reason why there should be an abrupt change following Brexit.  The real challenge would come with the FP9 programme.  Researchers would need to meet eligbility critera and this could prove a serious disadvantage to the UK.

UK research councils are being reorganised and UKRI launched.  This may allow for more joint calls with countries like the USA and may be the way forward if the UK does leave Horizon 2020.  The UK has always had bilateral relations but on a smaller scale than its presence in European programmes.  Peter Tindemans was confident there would be global funding but it would not be widespread.

“If you’re not at the table, you may end up on the menu” (Professor Ole Petersen)

Nora de Leeuw added that science had changed and is now performed in large teams, such as the one that detected gravitational waves.  Professor de Leeuw concluded by saying that the UK government was investing more in science that supported industry.  Science was therefore likely to become more applied.  In the EU, the focus may shift to research capacity-building rather than on excellence.

Peter Tindemans ended by saying that cooperation could take several forms.  The first was large infrastructure, which was based on cooperation between nations.  The second was on big challenges, which were best tackled by bodies like the EU.  The last was on individual cooperation, which would continue to be done on a national basis.

Brexit panel debate in action
Brexit panel debate in action