A ray of light for academia amid the Brexit gloom

As push-pull factors exert their force on scholars in the UK, the Article 50 ruling buys universities more time to argue their case against a shifting EU backdrop

November 10, 2016
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So, you are a professor at last. You’ve changed your credit card details and your mother has told everyone on her street. But what happens now? What should you do with this exalted status that you have not been doing already? This is the subject of our cover feature, and several contributors suggest that it is incumbent on professors to start doing more for the wider academic community, especially those below them.

However, at an apparently increasing number of universities, the exalted title on the office door comes with a catch – implicit or explicit: you must bring in more external research funding. Professors under pressure are unlikely to have much time for being kind – especially given that, as has been pointed out, grant applicants are largely hostages to fortune given the decline in research budgets and success rates that has accelerated – in the West, at least – in the wake of the financial crisis.

In Europe, the one bright spot in the funding landscape has been the expanding budget of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, of which UK researchers have obtained more than their fair share. But, of course, all of that is now in peril after the UK’s vote to leave the EU.

As Timothy Devinney says in our lead opinion piece, it can only be hoped that the High Court ruling obliging the UK government to seek parliamentary approval before starting formal exit proceedings will allow the concerns of academics – among others – to be given a proper hearing before the process begins. But even if the two years of negotiations that will follow the invocation of Article 50 result in continued UK access to Horizon 2020 as an associated country, severe damage may already have been done to British universities. Many academics with international options are already exploring the alternatives and those who receive good offers from other countries will probably leave rather than remain in limbo in the UK. As Devinney points out, this includes UK nationals. He also observes that even if a post-Brexit UK bends over backwards to keep its foreign academics, perhaps by exempting them from visa rules, they may still leave given the effective salary cut entailed by the falling pound and the UK’s anti-foreigner climate; some of the jaw-dropping front pages of popular UK newspapers last week will only heighten universities’ fears on that latter score.

Another point worth stressing is that even associated countries do not have a say over the future shape of EU research policy. This is important because the European Research Council in particular has always been something of a miracle given the bureaucratic and consensus-driven nature of the EU, spending billions on “frontier” research, mostly in a small number of advanced member states, with little specific requirement that it lead to tangible social gains (although, of course, the expectation is that at least some of it will).

The potential vulnerability of that increasingly unique funder is illustrated in our main news story this week, which reports on apparent moves from the commission to beef up expectations around impact in Horizon 2020 applications. It is unlikely that the UK would object strongly to this, given its place in the vanguard of the impact agenda. But the point is that the nature of European funding is not set in stone and the UK needs to maintain its strong voice within the EU if it wants to maintain its world-leading position in research.

If the constant lobbying from Europe’s south and east for ERC funding to be distributed more equally were successful, the UK would find it even harder to hold on to its globally renowned professors – never mind tempt back those who are already heading to Heathrow.

paul.jump@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Should I stay or should I go?

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