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European partners can help make the case for best Brexit deal

Faced with uncertainty at home, universities should be seeking allies abroad, says Jon Deer.

A month after the referendum, we have no clearer idea of where we are heading other than out of the European Union. Committees in both houses of parliament are holding inquiries into the implications of Brexit for UK science—in the Lords, only a few weeks after publishing a report anticipating the effects of Brexit. But Theresa May’s government will have a number of more pressing issues than the future of UK higher education and research. While politicians consider what to deal with first, the UK’s academics are left with uncertainty.

Assurances of continuity from UK science and universities minister Jo Johnson and EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas seem to have overlooked the reality that we are already feeling the effects of the Brexit vote. Projects that are starting in the next few weeks could continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU, and proposals now in development definitely will. The uncertainty about the UK’s status is eroding the confidence of our potential partners.

We all know stories of researchers asking how to respond to queries from consortium partners or of colleagues considering relocating to mainland Europe. Sadly, the official response is to dismiss such reports as anecdotal.

These reports are not yet examples of concrete changes, but they show changing perceptions of the UK’s universities. If we need evidence of how quickly perceptions can become manifest in the real world we need look no further than the experience of Swiss researchers

Swiss institutions’ temporary exclusion from the first calls of Horizon 2020 and uncertainty over their future status meant that participation in Horizon 2020 had fallen by nearly half by January 2016 compared with the previous Framework programme. Under Framework 7, Swiss institutions coordinated 3.9 per cent of all projects; by January this year, that figure had fallen to 0.3 per cent. That is evidence, not anecdote.

The uncertainty over the UK’s future presents a risk to potential partners. Competition for funding is so intense that consortia must grasp any small advantage. Will having a UK institution involved in a bid be seen as a positive any more?

The uncertainty may affect different fields in different ways. For a researcher thinking about taking his or her grants to the mainland, the core consideration is whether another institution can match the present research environment. Where this involves large-scale infrastructure or specialist equipment, there may be few alternatives.

For those whose work doesn’t require technical equipment, the considerations may be different. A fifth of the funding for UK social sciences and humanities comes from EU programmes, and the European Research Council offers some rare opportunities for long-term personal fellowships in these disciplines. These collaborations have become central to many areas of the social sciences and humanities in the UK, and the risk of exclusion from them may be an even bigger setback than any loss of funding.

Part of the solution is ready and waiting. We have heard a lot about the funds that would be repatriated once the UK left the EU. Some of that money could underwrite the ongoing costs of UK participation in projects continuing beyond Brexit. There may be a shortfall; the UK gets more in science and research funding from the EU than we pay in. But guaranteeing to underwrite UK participation in Horizon 2020 could give the government an extra incentive to secure a quick settlement.

Until now, UK universities’ lobbying has been turned inward, towards the empty space that at some point the government will reoccupy. It is now just as important to engage our EU partners in the discussion, and urge them to convince their own governments that the UK can and should continue to participate as before.

Our universities have not stopped being world-class research centres in the past few weeks. Collaborators in Europe and beyond have every reason to continue working with UK partners. It is important that we find partners in the EU who can engage member states and the European Commission to ensure that research maintains a high profile with both sides in the coming negotiation.

Finding the right partners will be critical. Organisations such as Academia Europaea, the European Universities Association and theEuropean Alliance for the Social Sciences and Humanities can link us with the Commission. We need also to join forces at the member-state level, as national opinions will drive the EU perspective. At LSE, we are contacting long-term partners in EU projects to discuss how we can minimise the consequences of Brexit and continue the collaborations that have been so fruitful in the past 25 years.

Jon Deer is deputy director of the research division at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight