UK rival to ERC would be poor substitute, says Oxford v-c

Ministers considering report outlining possibility of setting up domestic alternative post-Brexit

September 12, 2019
Louise Richardson

The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has warned that a UK domestic rival to the European Research Council, which could be set up after Brexit, would be a poor substitute.

Writing in Times Higher Education, Louise Richardson says that “no national replacement scheme could ever have the status” of the European Union’s research framework programmes.

The UK is unlikely to be able to access the EU’s funding schemes, including the highly prestigious ERC, if it leaves the bloc without a deal. Even if it does strike an agreement, lengthy negotiations on UK association to the next programme, Horizon Europe, could leave the country on the outside when it launches in January 2021.

The Westminster government had tasked Sir Adrian Smith, the former vice-chancellor of the University of London, with investigating whether the UK could establish a domestic alternative to the ERC, open to British-based and international researchers.

THE understands that Sir Adrian’s report was submitted to ministers in July and was due to be published this month, although the political crisis in Westminster might delay this.

In her THE article, Professor Richardson says that the UK “must ensure that we can continue to participate in European research post-Brexit”.

EU research funding is worth £1 billion annually to UK universities, while ERC grant holders are among the world’s best scientists. The UK is the most successful country in securing competitive European funding, winning 21 per cent of all ERC grants.

“European research funding has been central to the success of UK universities,” Professor Richardson writes. “If access to the ERC were lost, no national replacement scheme could ever have the status, the breadth of vision or the lengthy time horizons of the multilateral system carefully developed over decades by the EU.”

Some politicians have presented Brexit as an opportunity for UK universities to build stronger links with institutions outside the bloc, but Professor Richardson says that these “can only supplement, and never supplant, the dense network of research partnerships Oxford has across the EU”.

Professor Richardson also criticises Labour’s plans to abolish tuition fees in England “without a hint of where the £12.2 billion cost of maintaining the current unit of resource would come from”.

“We face ever-escalating costs of pensions, salaries and responding to regulatory requirements,” Professor Richardson writes. “We simply cannot sustain our position if our funding declines as our costs increase.”

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