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Can’t always get what you want

Images: University College London

…but UK research can get the partnerships it needs, say Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid

The UK government has said repeatedly that it wants the option to participate in Horizon Europe, the EU’s next programme of research funding set to begin in 2021. That position reflects the views of the research and innovation community, which is universally in favour of this continued involvement.

Meanwhile, the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU remains unclear and the shape and scale of Horizon Europe are not yet settled. Inevitably, we don’t know the terms under which the UK might associate with the next EU R&D programme, or even what it will look like in detail.

With so much uncertainty about the future, Chris Skidmore, the UK science and universities minister, asked us for independent advice on alternative UK funding schemes for international collaboration, innovation and blue-skies research.

The government published our report to the minister on 5 November. We offered no views on association with Horizon Europe. That was not our job. Our role was to explore UK funding arrangements for global collaboration in research and innovation if the UK does not associate. 

Admittedly, this creates a simplistic distinction between association and non-association when, in reality, more nuanced options may be available.  However, it avoids getting lost in a maze of uncertainty. In preparing the report, we received almost 140 submissions and held consultative meetings in locations from Edinburgh to Exeter and from Belfast to Brussels. 

Support for UK participation in future EU programmes was unanimous. We also heard that, if association does not happen, alternative arrangements for funding international collaboration are feasible, although the transition to new arrangements is bound to be challenging.

Opportunities to strengthen international collaboration in research and innovation would be worth pursuing whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Until now, the cost of participation has been met within the nation’s financial subscription to the EU. After Brexit, these costs will need to be justified alongside competing demands for public spending. If the UK government decides against association with Horizon Europe, because it believes that this does not deliver enough benefit, then we are not convinced that a case can be made for a domestic effort at line-by-line replication of arrangements that operate in the EU. 

Arrangements optimised around UK interests are unlikely to mirror those optimised around the collective interests of 27 EU member states. We do, however, see compelling arguments for additional UK public investment to stabilise and protect many of the assets, infrastructure and professional capabilities created through decades of participation in previous EU programmes. To do otherwise would mean needlessly discarding the fruits of decades of investment in EU R&D.

For example, the Treasury has already guaranteed to underpin UK research proposals that have been successful in EU competitions that lose their funding after Brexit. That could be extended to provide financial support to help researchers with a history of winning EU funding make the transition to alternative international funding.

Additional investment

We also see strong arguments for additional investment in research and innovation collaboration globally. Together with stabilisation funding, we believe this package of alternatives should be worth around £1.5 billion annually—similar to the R&D funding the UK has previously received from the EU.

Half of published UK research comes from international collaboration. The United States is by far the largest source of such collaborations. China, Australia and Spain have shown the fastest growth over the past decade. Five of the UK’s top ten research partners are outside the EU.

Private spending is crucial. More R&D investment in the UK from businesses headquartered overseas is essential to meeting the government’s commitment to raise R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP. 

This key source of investment has changed significantly over the past decade. The United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment in R&D; its spending has grown by over 15 per cent during this time. R&D investment from firms based in the EU is lower, but has grown by more than 30 per cent over the same period. And R&D investment from the rest of the world has shot up by more than 300 per cent over the past 10 years, overtaking the EU and now approaching US levels. 

There is clear evidence that this investment is attracted to the UK by the strength of our curiosity-driven research. 

Against that background, our report sets out an ambitious vision for international collaboration in research and innovation. We drew widely on ideas from the UK research and innovation community. The first steps towards this vision should include strides towards the 2.4 per cent target, such as:

• An international version of the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund. Funding competitions could provide sizeable rewards for universities or institutes that attract the largest amounts of foreign direct investment in R&D to the UK.

• A coherent Global Talent Strategy, combining reforms to immigration policy with a suite of fellowship and postgraduate programmes to attract and retain many of the world’s most talented researchers.

• Substantial additional funding for basic research, recognising that significant levels of support for this important work currently come from EU collaborations.

• A flagship programme of research fellowships offering large awards over long timespans for exceptional researchers to expand the frontiers of knowledge in areas they have identified. 

Awards would be overseen by a prestigious international faculty of peer reviewers, recruited through national academies across several countries.

To make sure that research and innovation funding brings opportunities for all regions of the UK, the forthcoming Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU structural funds, should be integrated with Innovate UK’s agenda. 

Such a move should take full advantage of Innovate UK’s potential to guide and shape sizeable parts of the Shared Prosperity Fund, in partnership with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, devolved governments and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Innovate UK also has the potential to manage distinctive new investment streams, responding to any reduction in EU support for UK small and medium businesses.

New streams

Three new funding streams should also be created to enable the research base to become more agile and better placed to capture any fast-moving and unexpected opportunities.

• The first of these should provide additional financial support through quality-related funding and its devolved equivalents for the spontaneous, organic collaborations that are woven into the fabric of research and innovation but can easily be inhibited by funding models tied to specific projects.

• The second should be an ‘Agility Fund’ to enable the UK to invest in emerging international programmes of significant potential benefit to UK research.

• The third should aim to capture opportunities that arise unexpectedly, including during interactions with other countries at ministerial levels.

International collaboration on this scale would require distinctive administrative structures. Much of the funding will be deployed in partnerships with funding agencies and businesses in other countries, rather than under the exclusive control of the UK.

Any such funding structure should operate with the following principles and attributes—some of which, of course, are already operating in domestic arrangements. 

• Robust governance to ensure effective stewardship of public funds and maintain the confidence of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury

• Independence and transparency to maintain the confidence of new investors from other countries and the research community in the UK.

• Expertise in the distinctive nature of international collaborations as well as access to expertise and administrative support on research and innovation funding

• Maintain or enhance the diversity of funding sources for research and innovation in the UK

• Introduce the lowest extra costs of administration consistent with the four principles outlined above. On the basis of discussions with well-informed stakeholders, we identified many options for the management of new funding streams within these principles. These include:

• Creating a stand-alone public body that would manage most or all of the new funds, becoming a champion for international collaboration.

• Allocating the funding across the nine councils gathered under UKRI, so that several can each lead appropriate parts of the international agenda.

• Creating a funding stream run from the centre of UKRI, alongside the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund, that works in collaboration with existing UKRI councils where appropriate.

• Creating a new, independent council within UKRI that would be a champion for international collaboration, manage much of the new funding itself and work in collaboration with existing councils wherever appropriate. 

Different components of funding might well be managed through different options. We have enough experience of the administration of research funding to realise that others should explore these options in far more detail before coming to a decision.

Adrian Smith is director of the Alan Turing Institute. Graeme Reid is chair of science and research policy at University
College London

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight