Government must make international research collaboration easier after Brexit, UUK urges

The organisation representing 139 universities warns that bureaucracy, visas and funding could stop ambitious research deals post-Brexit

The government should create a new “global prestige talent scheme” to attract the best researchers to UK universities and simplify the collaboration process for overseas investors after the Brexit transition phase end this year, the group representing 139 UK universities has said

The Universities UK International (UUKi) report proposes eight key changes – from visas to funding mechanisms, to entrepreneurial programmes – that it argues will help the UK improve its international position in research and development (R&D).

The future outside of Horizon Europe

UUKi hopes the government target to increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of national GDP will be matched with policies to encourage international collaboration in the eventuality the UK does not maintain membership of Horizon Europe after 1 January 2021.

The chances of securing a post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union appear slim, after the prime minister last week declared that talks between the two sides are “over”.

Collaboration between the UK and EU has been facilitated through the Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development since 1984; the eighth iteration of the framework, Horizon 2020, is set to expire this year. Horizon Europe establishes programmes until 2027.

Despite these headlines, UUKi argued: “Horizon Europe association should be a core part of the future relationship between the EU and the UK for research, underpinning valuable scientific partnerships that have been built up over many years.”

On non-EU international research, UUKi advocated high-level policy changes to improve the standing of the UK. “More recently, the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) have been the most notable international initiatives taken as part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment. However, change is needed in the national system to advance these relationships to the next stage and intensify partnerships with countries that operate at the science and technology frontier.”

During a Higher Education Policy Institute webinar yesterday, Prof Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, said he was confident the UK would negotiate membership of Horizon Europe. “Do I believe we’ll be there for the beginning of next year? No, I don’t. Do I believe we’ll get there at some point? Yeah, I think we probably will,” he said.

Prof Tim Softley, pro-vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham, said he believed there was a 30% chance the UK would agree on Horizon membership by January 2021, but an 80% chance it would secure membership at a later date.

Improving collaboration

UUKi recommended that UKRI partner with comparable agencies and countries around the world “at the science and technology frontier” to explore more ambitious research opportunities. The government should also set aside additional funding in the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) to attract overseas business investment in the UK’s research ecosystem. To encourage partnerships, the UK should create ‘one front door’ for overseas investors and researchers that streamlines and signposts routes to working with universities and domestic funders. Finally, the report argues that the co-investigator scheme, which provides funding for cross-border projects, be rolled out to all UKRI research councils.

Attracting and retaining talent

The government should create a global prestige talent scheme to attract world-leading research to pursue “pursue blue sky research ideas in the UK” and an entrepreneurship programme to retain international students that want to grow their businesses in the UK.

Levelling up

UUKi said UKRI should create “dedicated international calls” in the Research Partnership Investment Fund (RPIF) and the Strengths in Place Fund (SIPF) for regions high on the government ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The government should help devise policies aimed at retaining “high-value R&D activities” in local areas in the event a big business shifts operations outside the UK. Many multinational organisations with bases in the UK, like Nissan, invest heavily in UK research; the loss of such a large funder after Brexit could harm the UK’s research base.

The attempted takeover of Arm, the Cambridge-based microchip company, by American Nvidia has raised fears for the organisation’s Cambridge operations. Peter Mandelson, the former business secretary, wrote to the Financial Times, warning the company could become “collateral damage”. Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner has warned that 300 jobs at Arm’s graphics processing division in Cambridge could face an uncertain future. Without legally-binding assurances from Nvidia, critics warn the Cambridge-based organisation could be closed after the acquisition.

The wider context

According to the latest government figures, the number of UK publications resulting from international collaboration has increased from 26% in 1998 to 55% in 2018, compared to a worldwide average of 21%. The UK has also maintained its share of total world publications (7%) since 2001 against a backdrop of American decline and Chinese growth; since the millennium America’s share of world publications dropped from 26% to 22% and China’s share rose from 5% to 19%. Since 2010, UK-contributed publications accounted for between 13% and 16% of the most highly-cited research (those in the top 1% of citations).

Dame Nancy Rothwell, chair of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Manchester University, earlier this year warned that UK research was under “under huge threat” as a result of Brexit and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Research minister Amanda Solloway yesterday announced a widespread review of the Research Excellence Framework.

Read more: Lockdown has reduced capacity to conduct research – Vitae survey

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