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UK needs a verdict on European research collaboration, says Sarah Richardson in this week's Research Fortnight leader.

When science minister Sam Gyimah criticised universities for not having “risen up to the challenge” of replacing European research initiatives endangered by Brexit, it looked suspiciously like he was rehearsing a defence the government might come to rely on.

Should UK access to European-Union-funded collaborations fall victim to a no-deal scenario, laying even partial blame for a hit to research at the door of academia would suit ministers reminded of their vision of an economy driven by innovation. Certainly, any chance that Gyimah’s comments might spur universities to suddenly conjure up a raft of new international collaborations was swiftly dispersed by academics. The exhortation to “rise up” was instead met with a rising tide of anger, as we report this week.

It is obviously galling for universities to be blamed for not replacing funding that they have had no hand in losing. But it is especially so because the government has, so far, not wanted them to view the funding as lost.

Throughout the Brexit saga, ministers have repeatedly sent the message that they will either secure access to EU research programmes or find some way of replacing them. How much anyone believes this is another matter. But when Gyimah himself has said that he is “extremely confident there is scope for a win-win deal as far as science is concerned” and that negotiators were “proceeding, in terms of our discussions and plans, as if this is going to happen”, it’s quite brazen to imply that universities are too focused on the future of their EU collaborations.

With six months to go until Brexit day, and the future of scientific collaboration still shrouded in doubt, it is clear that there is a failure of leadership over the future of research. But it’s not from universities. The fact that many institutions are trying to work out ways to continue well-established research partnerships in a post-Brexit era might offer a lesson to politicians. There is no need to leap into an abyss, just because it’s there.

There are some pockets of sense prevailing from within the corridors of power. One is over open-access publishing, with UK Research and Innovation taking steps to align with the headwinds in Europe by becoming one of the 11 national funders signed up to the requirements of ‘Plan S’.

But in many cases, even those policies that are emerging from the intention to support research after Brexit stop far short of what is needed. Last week’s recommendations by the Migration Advisory Committee were a clear example: some small wins on leave to remain were overshadowed by the rejection of the post-study work visa many universities had called for. And all set against the shackle of the unwelcoming message inherent in the decision to continue to count overseas students in net migration figures, while having targets for immigration.

With the sands fast running down on Brexit, UK research needs better if it is going to help propel society and the economy forward outside the EU. When it comes to European collaborations, the government must be prepared to pay to play, and accept that involvement may come at a cost to influence.

Above all, it must focus on solving the problem, rather than preparing to lay the blame for failure.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight