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New order

As the UK leaves the EU, its research must keep its global outlook

The most depressing day of the year, as a persistent yet baseless marketing myth would have it, has already been and gone. But for many in UK academia, this Friday—Brexit day—will be every blue day rolled into one.

As the UK exits the European Union, those in research still have unanswered questions over the country’s future participation in highly regarded EU programmes, including the next Horizon framework and the Erasmus+ student and staff mobility initiative. 

For individuals and institutions trying to plan their work and lives more than a mere eleven months ahead—when the Brexit transition period ends—this uncertainty is causing greater strain with every week it continues. But looming over these pressing concerns is an even bigger worry for the sector: the extent to which the UK, having stepped back from its closest overseas ties, will continue to be an outward-looking, international player in research and collaboration in the years to come.

For the UK, Friday marks a political departure that has been nearly four fraught years in the making, but the news agenda domestically and internationally in the final run-up has been led by the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China and its international spread, as well as ongoing fears over climate change. This is an apt illustration that the biggest challenges society faces are not concerned with or bound by borders. The research that is needed to counter them cannot be, either. 

The government’s confirmation this week of the launch of a fast-track visa system for ‘global talent’ in research, science and maths, was, on that note, smartly timed. In practice, the policy offers little change to the existing ‘exceptional talent’ visas it replaces, given recently announced revisions to that scheme to scrap a cap on numbers and raise the number of fellowships eligible. But it signals that the British government is aware of the harmful effect Brexit’s insular approach to immigration could have on the UK’s scientific community, in particular, and is trying to counter this straightaway (the new visa system comes into effect on 20 February). In setting out dates and information around the endorsement process for applicants, it also, reassuringly, offers a level of detail all too often absent from smartly timed policy launches.

The same announcement flagged a raft of other moves to reshape the UK’s research environment, including a forthcoming strategy around R&D and place, and confirmation that the bidding process for public grants will be simplified, beginning—as Research Professional News revealed last week—with the scrapping of the requirement to detail likely future research impacts under Pathways to Impact statements. 

The question researchers will want answered is how these initiatives will fit into a coherent whole. And whether this week’s flurry of attention over creating “a stronger research and innovation environment that is focussed on supporting talented people”, as the government put it, will be sustained over the months and years to come. 

Brexit was not what the sector wanted, but it is what we have got. With the world in motion, UK academics must stand up for the kind of outward-looking environment they, and future generations of researchers, need to thrive.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight