The risks of a no-deal Brexit have been highlighted by data that reveal the intensity of the UK’s research collaboration with European countries – and suggest that ties with some sectors further afield are not as strong as often thought.
Analysis presented as part of the Brexit research project being conducted by the University of Oxford’s Centre for Global Higher Education examined the strength of the UK’s research collaboration with other countries by comparing rates of co-authorship against partner nations’ overall patterns of cooperation.
Broadly, the results indicate how likely academics from different countries are to work together. The expected level of collaboration is 1, so a score of 1.5 indicates high intensity compared with the standard for those countries, while 0.75 points to much lower-than-expected collaboration.
The scores for European Union countries ranged from 1.01 to 2.16. The UK’s strongest ties were with the Republic of Ireland, with 2,621 co-authored papers being published in 2016.
Other strong bonds were found with Greece (1.74, 2,531 papers), the Netherlands (1.5, 8,039 papers) and Denmark (1.43, 3,658 papers).
Outside Europe, the UK had robust links with New Zealand (1.35, 1,640 papers), South Africa (1.33, 2,170 papers) and Australia (1.19, 8,838 papers).
Pro-Brexit politicians have long touted the idea that British-based scientists will be able to focus on wider global collaboration, particularly with the US, China and the members of the Commonwealth once the UK leaves the EU.
But the data, obtained from the US National Science Foundation, underline how much work will be needed to develop those links.
The strength of the ties between the US and the UK was surprisingly low, despite the large number of jointly written papers published (0.77, 25,858 papers). Also comparatively weak were relationships with leading Asian sectors: with Singapore (0.77, 1,541 papers), India (0.67, 2,494 papers) and China (0.62, 10,472 papers).
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford and director of the CGHE, said the data reflected how the high intensity of collaboration with Europe had been built up over decades, supported by the EU’s framework programmes and the funding they provided.
The impact of the loss of these ties amid a no-deal Brexit would be “dramatic”, Professor Marginson said.
“If we have no deal, [and] no inclusion with the next Horizon programme, that breaks a lot of relationships,” he said.
The data emerged after Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, announced plans to introduce a fast-track visa scheme for leading researchers after Brexit, and to fund British-based academics’ applications for European Research Council grants in the event of a no-deal departure.
Mr Johnson said that he wanted the UK “to continue to be a global science superpower”, but science leaders said it would be difficult to compensate for the loss of access to EU framework programmes.
Professor Marginson said the NSF data showed that “US-UK collaboration is not as strong as you would expect”. “The US is a giant, and while we are a good-sized fish, for them looking after the UK is not a priority; it will have to be earned,” he said.
Closer ties with east Asian nations were highlighted by Professor Marginson as another possibility, but although China may be looking to forge new links with the West after its recent fallout with the US, “they’d have to fund collaboration with the UK in a way that they haven’t before”.
“Whatever happens, it won’t be simple. Building relationships doesn’t happen overnight,” Professor Marginson said.