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Trick or treat?

The latest Brexit delay avoids a cliff-edge, but the government must act now for science

Here we don’t go again. The eleventh-hour stay of execution on the UK’s European Union membership, agreed by the EU’s leaders days before the country’s slated Halloween departure, has granted research another reprieve from the spectre of a no-deal exit.

The so-called ‘flextension’, giving the UK until 31 January to get a withdrawal deal approved by parliament, means that—for now at least—UK researchers can continue to access Horizon 2020 grants, while students can still take part in the Erasmus+ exchange programme.

But what then? While institutions that spent last week sending representatives scurrying to Universities UK’s Brexit readiness roadshows can return to a semblance of business as usual, the same problems lurk in the background. Come January, unless a general election functions as a de facto public vote to remain, the sector will need to adapt quickly to the new economic and political context. And so far, despite having had a hefty review advising it on the way forward since the summer, the government has remained eerily silent on its plan for science.

Last week, science minister Chris Skidmore linked the publication of its strategy, informed by the review carried out by Turing institute head Adrian Smith and UCL’s Graeme Reid, to a budget slated for early November. The budget has now been killed off, and the obvious fear for research is that any clarity for science on a new funding environment will continue gathering cobwebs.

The budget delay effectively leaves research without an anticipated funding uplift to help push the country towards the government’s target of spending 2.4 percent of GDP on research by 2027. Meanwhile, the sector is facing an unholy alliance of unknowns. It is in the dark about the relative likelihood of various options mooted for replacing or gaining access to EU funding pots after Brexit, and measures to stimulate international partnerships. Businesses are similarly concerned over the impact of Brexit on their R&D investment.

The Conservatives—if they retain power—need to set out their strategy for funding ahead of any departure, not wait until it happens. Similarly, on the out-there assumption that no political party wants to see a reduction in R&D investment, the sector needs definite proposals from any that win power.

There is a limited amount of planning universities can do to prepare for funding schemes that exist only at conceptual level in the minds of a handful of government advisers. That is not to say that they should not be acting to propel the research environment into a better position for the future.

Funder UK Research and Innovation last week published its review into bullying and harassment in research. It will shock few that it said characteristics of higher education—incentive structures and strong hierarchies, for example—contribute to these evils.

UKRI is considering restricting funding for organisations that don’t do enough to address the issue. It’s reason for reinvention, but not one that any institution serious about continuing to attract skilled researchers, especially in the light of what Brexit might throw up, should need. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight