Developing a replacement for European research funding schemes if the UK lost access to them after Brexit would be an enormous challenge, the executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council has warned.
UK access to funding and collaborations under Horizon Europe, the European Union’s next research framework programme, will be dependent on the UK’s agreeing terms – and paying a fee – for “associate” membership.
But even if the UK does this, it could be excluded from some of the most prestigious “mono-beneficiary” schemes, including the European Research Council grants and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions encouraging transnational and interdisciplinary mobility for researchers.
University leaders have called on the Westminster government to be prepared to set up an alternative funding scheme to replace ERC funding.
But, appearing before the House of Lords Home Affairs Committee, AHRC executive chair Andrew Thompson warned that such a programme was unlikely to be ready until “18 to 24 months’ time”, meaning that “suitable short-term bridging measures” would likely be necessary.
Even such temporary measures would take time to deliver, Professor Thompson warned, “because of the scale of the operation…because it needs to be a credible alternative”.
“I would not want to underestimate the size of the operational challenge that’s involved in doing that,” Professor Thompson told peers. “We will have to be absolutely on top of our game in order to deliver [it],” he said, adding that the expected increase in applications for UK-funded grants over EU programmes would also create a major increase in workload for research councils.
“The magnitude with which we will have to expand our peer review processes at very high speed will be very challenging,” he explained.
Certain disciplines – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – would be particularly affected by the loss of EU funding, since they were “significantly more exposed” in terms of demand and available funding at the current level, Professor Thompson added.
ERC data show that, of the starting grants awarded to early career researchers in the humanities and social sciences in 2016, 34.1 per cent went to UK-based researchers compared with an overall disciplinary average of 17 per cent. “When disciplinary areas like [these] together account for half of all active UK researchers this is something we need to be very mindful of,” Professor Thompson told the committee.
The cost of plugging the funding gap would be great, he noted, but he was unable to say exactly how much it could cost the UK public purse.
“The absolute desired outcome here is to fully associate with all [Horizon Europe] programmes, and I think the future health, prosperity and success of the UK research and science base is significantly leveraged on that, but our European collaborations are not all limited to our participation in [them],” Professor Thompson concluded.