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Indicative quotes

As things heat up in Westminster, we take the temperature of European research at the Earma conference in Bologna.

A local superstition says that no undergraduate should walk on the pavement across the centre of the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna or they will not complete their degree. In the city that is playing host to this year’s conference of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators, there is little sign of today’s students at Europe’s oldest university paying heed to this folklore.

In fact, it was graduation day for some yesterday, and they could be seen parading in the streets of the medieval town centre with laurel wreaths in their hair. There is a custom in these parts that graduands can wear fancy dress: we saw several tigers, a zebra, a few clowns and someone dressed as a celebratory cake.

Over at the other end of town, at the Bologna Congressi exhibition centre in the Fiere district, the largest ever gathering of European research managers is taking place. Earma 2019 runs from 27 to 29 March and Research Professional is the media partner for the event, which has attracted a record number of registrations.

Last night, the conference began with a Question Time event organised by Research Professional and chaired by group editor Sarah Richardson. The format followed the BBC television programme in which an audience quizzes a panel of experts, but without anyone feeling the need to outbid one another for who could adopt the most extreme position on immigration.

The panel event came after a performance of a play called Research Management, an hour-long comic skit on the grant life cycle, performed by an international cast of research administrators and written and directed by David Lauder, European research officer at the University of York.

We appreciate that Playbook readers have come to value our theatre reviews. However, on this occasion, all we will say is that during the performance it was the first time we have had sympathy with those who want to walk out on Europe.

The Question Time panel consisted of the Cern-based physicist Stefano Bianco; Michael Browne, head of European R&D at University College London; Lidia Borrell-Damián, director of research and innovation at the European University Association; and Massimo Busuoli, head of the Brussels office for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The panel took its lead from the date 2019, the year in which the film Blade Runner is set and that was once considered the far future of dystopian fiction. Accordingly, the session asked what the future might hold for research in Europe and beyond.

Perhaps someone in the Research Professional office had a premonition that if we organised a panel on Brexit for the week the UK was set to leave the European Union, we would end up not leaving on 29 March after all. So it has proven, but more on that later.

Instead, mercifully, the only B-word in liberal use was the name of the host city. Topics included open-access publishing, responsible metrics, sustainable funding, research impact, industrial collaboration, artificial intelligence and technological disruption.

What emerged was a picture of European research in “crisis”, to quote the panel’s repeated use of the term. The pinch comes not from threats to the integrity of the EU but from an academic system and research framework that are producing perverse results, the speakers said.

Borrell-Damián noted: “If we really want to see the free circulation of knowledge in 10 years’ time, we need to change the way research is assessed.” The existing system, she said, incentivises academics, for career reasons, to publish rather than to pursue other forms of research activity.

She argued that too many academics chasing after too few places in too few top-ranked journals was not a productive use of the investment made in science and research. A framework for the assessment of research is required that will value innovation as much as it does publication, she suggested.

Browne remarked that universities were not set up to deal with the future demands of research funders, who now want to see more achieved in less time. He said that the history of European research funding showed a drift away from university-led consortia engaged in basic research in Framework 7 towards groups led by businesses looking for applied outcomes in Horizon 2020.

He expected this to continue and accelerate in future Framework programmes and called on universities to build pan-European networks of researchers and companies that had real substance, rather than groups put together for the purpose of bidding for grants. Browne suggested that universities had to ask themselves whether they had the right structures in place to do that.

Busuoli said Europe was “so good at producing knowledge but so bad at exploiting it compared to our competitors”. He called for networks of universities to work on open innovation initiatives to challenge intellectual property becoming the preserve of multinational companies, which might buy up IP to prevent others from having it but do not necessarily act upon it.

Browne spoke of the need to encourage open innovation and cited the Easy Access IP programme run by a consortium of UK universities in the midlands. Borrell-Damián countered that no progress could be made in innovation without fundamental research and emphasised that as well as innovation, “real science must be open”.

The panellists did their best to stir up a dystopian vision that would have made Philip K Dick shudder. Browne said that UCL’s position in terms of the leadership of EU bids had “fallen off a cliff” since the Brexit process began.

However, there was also hope, as Borrell-Damián said that the European University Association would release the results of a call next week on business models for publishing in the age of open access. She hoped that this would help alleviate some of the concerns around the future of the academic publishing industry that Plan S had given rise to.

Over in the Piazza Maggiore, the students were still risking their futures by walking on the pavement. The other superstition here is that they should not climb the Torre degli Asinelli (the two ancient towers that dominate central Bologna) because that will also result in a failure to graduate. Such proscriptions take the problem of student access to a whole new level.

The virtual minister

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, universities minister Chris Skidmore was making his own bid to become the sci-fi minister of the future as he appeared but was not present at the Universities UK forum on international higher education, held at Imperial College London. The minister can be forgiven for being detained by other matters at Westminster yesterday, so he sent a recorded message to the conference.

The speech Skidmore posted by digital file was one of the more significant ones he has given since he became minister. Such a pity that he was not actually there to make it.

As Chris Parr reports, the minister sought to reassure his audience that the government would take steps to allow the UK to participate in European Research Infrastructure Consortia after Brexit even if it crashes out of the EU without a deal. On the face of it, that seems like a significant promise, if not a commitment to associate membership of EU programmes.

With the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe still in the balance, the minister made some bold claims, saying that he was “pleased to confirm today that the UK will continue to meet the obligations needed to be members of Erics after we have left the EU, irrespective of how we leave the EU”.

"We are also working hard to maintain close collaboration in other European research frameworks—not least on the issue of the European University Institute,” he said. Skidmore told his audience that he had “recently spoken with the president of the EUI, professor Renaud Dehousse, and agreed to work closely together, including on potential options for future participation in EUI activities”.

He said that to demonstrate its long-term commitment to “global engagement”, the UK government would publish an international research and innovation strategy “that will set out our ambition to remain the partner of choice for international research and innovation”. He was obviously unaware of the state of play in the UCL European office as described by Michael Browne.

Following the launch of a government strategy for international education, co-sponsored by the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade, Skidmore went on to say: “We will support early and effective implementation of the [international research and innovation] strategy through an independent review of our future frameworks for international collaboration, as announced in the chancellor’s spring statement earlier this month.” That would seem to represent mission creep for Adrian Smith’s work on developing a fund for international research.

It was all looking quite bold and positive until the sucker punch came. Skidmore said: “Our funding programmes to support international collaboration on science and innovation and our international representation, led by the Science and Innovation Network in British embassies and high commissions, are ways we can deepen UK engagement globally.” He was talking about the 110 science attachés based in embassies overseas.

They are hardly a replacement for the UK’s leading and influential position within the research frameworks of the world’s largest trading bloc. It would be like swapping the vision of Blade Runner for Our Man in Havana. Perhaps if the minister had been present at Imperial College, he might have been challenged on this point.

The virtual prime minister

But all this was nothing compared with the drama-bomb dropped by the prime minister last night at the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs. It was reported that in a last-ditch attempt to get her Brexit deal over the line by Friday, Theresa May offered to quit as Tory leader should MPs pass her deal in the Commons. Thus allowing for a new leader to take charge of the next phase of Brexit negotiations.

It was enough for a former foreign secretary who resigned over the deal, Boris Johnson, and the shop steward of the European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to suddenly want to support the deal. But even then, the prime minister still probably does not have enough numbers to get it over the line.

Her only hope is that the Democratic Unionist Party comes round to the idea of supporting the deal, which the speaker of the House of Commons will not currently allow parliament to vote on. The DUP has said that it would prefer a long delay to Brexit, in the full knowledge that May is likely to go sooner rather than later anyway.

Elsewhere in the indicative votes of MPs on Brexit options, membership of the customs union and a second referendum emerged as the proposals with the most support. Despite government attempts to block it, a second round of voting will take place on Monday (barring an unexpected passing of the third meaningful vote this week) to identify a preferred solution.

The end game of indicative votes would be for MPs to pass a bill to force the government to enact the majority view of parliament. At that point, any prime minister worthy of the name would pull the plug and call a general election.

The members of the European Research Group are fools if they take May’s hint that she will resign at face value. The rest of us would be fools to imagine that the Brexit process is anywhere near a conclusion.

And finally…

There is a new commission on the block. This one, the New Independent Commission on the College of the Future, will be chaired by Ian Diamond, former vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and architect of student finance in Wales.

Although this commission will focus on further education, it is hard to imagine that it will not be making recommendations about higher education in further education and lifelong learning.

The commission has been set up by a consortium of organisations from across further education and skills, including the Association of Colleges, City & Guilds, the Further Education Trust for Leadership, Pearson and the data agency Jisc. Its remit will run across all the nations of the UK.

Members of the group include Matthew Fell, chief policy director at the CBI employers’ group; Ewart Keep of the University of Oxford; Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students; education consultant Ellen Hazelkorn; and Steph McGovern, star of the BBC Breakfast show.

It is another sign that we are passing through a period of policy climate change at the end of which universities must be prepared to share the stage with further education colleges.

On the HE website today

Chris Parr reports on the science minister’s comments that the UK will still be able to participate in European Research Infrastructure Consortia even if it leaves the EU without a deal.

Fiona McIntyre reports that Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, has called for more tolerance of pro-Brexit views on campuses.

She also covers comments from Augar panel member Alison Wolf, who has criticised the effects of increased competition between universities

Chris Parr reports on concerns from school and sixth form leaders that a government review that could spell the end for BTECs is “reckless”. He also covers a report that suggests “wilful incompetence” by some academics is contributing to a hidden workload in higher education

Ashleigh Furlong tells us that the UK government’s plan to launch an international research fund may not happen if the country secures associate membership of the next EU Framework programme for R&D.

Sophie Inge reveals that the Japanese pharmaceutical company Ono Pharmaceutical has joined Cancer Research UK in a drug discovery alliance formed to accelerate the development of immunotherapy treatments, and that a committee of the House of Lords has warned that the UK agency set to take charge of chemical regulation after Brexit does not have the resources to cope.

Ben Upton covers comments from the EU’s health commissioner, who says the next European Commission should propose a new regulatory framework for genetically modified plants. He adds that the Austrian Science Fund is exploring plans to split its funding equally between male and female researchers.

Craig Nicholson looks at the outstanding questions around the arrangements for British involvement in EU programmes in the event of a no-deal Brexit

In the news

The Financial Times reports that the University of Oxford has launched a poverty-fighting vehicle in Costa Rica.

The Times reports that the government is looking to appoint a bankruptcy expert as universities rack up debts.

In The National, scientists hail a discovery related to the “charm quark”.

In Times Higher, the Office for Students will be “proactive to stop university closures”, a post-Brexit UK grants scheme would find it almost impossible to match the European Research Council’s competition and quality, work to encourage team science is gaining momentum, and artificial intelligence experts are sceptical of the impact of automation on the university workforce.

The day ahead

It is the first full day of the annual conference of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators in Bologna, in association with Research Professional. The event runs until tomorrow.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency has launched a consultation on the UK-wide services it offers to higher education providers.

From 8.30am, there is a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on technology in higher education.

The Economic and Social Research Council is holding a masterclass called Personalised Patient Care Under Uncertainty on Thursday and Friday in London.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is launching an Internet of Things Centre of National Excellence at the BRE Group in Bricket Wood.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Harriet Swain and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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