New report outlines direction for UK research funding and collaboration after Brexit

New report outlines direction for UK research funding and collaboration after Brexit

Since the announcement of Brexit three years ago, UK researchers have been concerned about the future of international funding and collaboration once the UK leaves the European Union (EU), the new deadline for which is 31 January, 2020. The UK is among the world’s leading geographies in research output and at the forefront of many a global research and innovation initiative. Unsure of how Brexit may impact the nation’s leadership position in research, many scientists have hoped the UK continues to be associated with Horizon 2020 even after the impending exit. Horizon 2020, the EU’s biggest research and innovation programme, has been awarding funds to the extent of £1.5bn per annum for the nation’s research efforts since the programme’s inception in 2014.

While the government is caught in an impasse over the terms of exit, Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, commissioned an evidence report earlier this year on future frameworks for international collaboration in research and innovation for the nation. Helmed by Sir Adrian Smith, Director and Chief Executive, Alan Turing Institute, and supported by Graeme Reid, Chair of Science and Research Policy, University College London, the report, titled Changes and Choices, was released recently.

The report outlines several pathways and priorities for the post-Brexit landscape. Here are key recommendations from the report.

  • Stability: With an aim to mitigate the uncertainty that currently prevails over the exit, the report makes a strong pitch for stability. Smith and Reid advocate that public sector investment be made to safeguard the assets and capabilities created by previous years of participation in EU research. Emphasizing the importance of this approach, they have even advised prioritizing this over some of their other recommendations if needed. Failure to do so, they believe, would jeopardize the UK’s highly successful research eco-system at this crucial and vulnerable juncture. Moreover, it may inhibit international organizations that are presently considering new investments in the nation’s various research and development (R&D) initiatives.
  • R&D investment: To continue working toward its goal of spending 2.4% of its GDP on research by 2027 (as per the G20 Scorecard – Research Performance 2019, the UK currently spends about 1.7% of GDP on research), the report makes several suggestions. One is the creation of a flagship programme that offers sizeable awards over long periods of time to high-performing researchers across all disciplines. On similar lines, the report suggests an international version of the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (which aims to support investment in higher education research facilities) to organize competitions offering sizeable rewards to universities and institutes that attract considerable foreign direct investment (FDI) into the nation’s R&D efforts.
  • Fast-track funding: Seeking to adopt a nimbler approach to capitalizing on emerging opportunities, the report suggests strategies such as increasing unrestricted block grants and the setting up of an “agility fund.” Unrestricted block grants would allow researchers to obtain grants relatively quickly for certain research opportunities, in contrast to the long process inherent to project-specific grants. An agility fund would allow policymakers and researchers to capitalize on opportunities that come up unexpectedly during ministerial meetings with other countries.
  • Alternative planning: While it does not take a stance on whether a split with Horizon 2020 would be good or bad for the UK (stating that this is beyond its scope), the report does suggest alternate directions in such an eventuality. In case Horizon 2020 ceases to be a funder, Smith and Reid advise channeling efforts and funds internally, such as by looking beyond the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford, and Cambridge (which have historically received the largest grants from the EU). Instead, funds could be spread out more evenly across the country. Continuing with this line of reasoning, the report also recommends setting up research centres across the nation, each as big as a mid-sized university.

With recommendations that address immediate concerns and also adopt a far-reaching outlook, the report seems a sincere effort at providing both clarity and positivity to the nation’s researchers. As Chris Skidmore noted in his ministerial statement, “The report will help inform our ongoing ambition to deliver wide-ranging and effective research and innovation collaborations with partners around the world.”

However, one aspect of post-exit funding the report has left open for now is the entity or group that will be responsible for funding efforts from within the nation. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), an organization of several research councils and the UK’s largest funder, may not be equipped to immediately handle a burden of £1.5bn. Some alternatives that could be considered are creating a new council within UKRI or creating a new body altogether to manage new funding.

While a cloud hangs over the terms of Brexit, the affirming and visionary report may well have brought a silver lining for many a UK researcher.

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