Allow ‘no leeway’ on UK staying in EU research, says Oxford chief

University’s head of Brexit strategy urges universities to apply pressure over ‘essential’ priority

April 18, 2017
Man held at gunpoint

Vice-chancellors must put pressure on the government to keep the UK in the European Union research funding system post-Brexit as an “absolutely essential” priority, according to the University of Oxford’s head of Brexit strategy.

Alastair Buchan, a neurologist who has been dean of medicine and head of Oxford’s medical sciences division since 2008, took up his new role in January. Speaking to Times Higher Education, he described the EU as having had an “absolutely transformative” impact for Oxford in recent decades.

He said the university’s aim was to “mitigate and reduce the impact of coming out of the EU by making it accessible for students, by making [the situation] stable for our non-UK European faculty, by [ensuring] access to funding”.

Recent UK government figures showed Oxford in top place among all of Europe’s universities in terms of the amount of funding won from the EU’s current research programme, Horizon 2020. The university has secured €186 million (£159 million) so far in the programme.

Professor Buchan said he hoped that the UK could secure “associated country” status for Horizon 2020 and its successors, a move that would probably require the payment of a contribution towards the EU’s research budget.

“The obvious and most desirable outcome is that the government does everything it possibly can to help this country…to be an associate member [of EU research] if we’re not going to be part of the EU,” said Professor Buchan. “We must, must keep that top of the list of options.”

UK universities benefit from about £1.2 billion a year in EU research funding, and being part of the EU’s framework programmes for research means UK-based academics are eligible for prestigious European Research Council grants and can join international research consortia funded by the programmes.

Universities UK has been criticised by senior sector figures in Germany for a perceived failure to set out a plan to keep the UK in EU research programmes.

Professor Buchan, who highlighted the importance of access to ERC grants in attracting leading researchers to the UK, said it was “absolutely essential that we are members of the ERC – if we can’t be directly members, then as associate members. And the government should not be given any leeway – that has got to be the position that we stick to. The sector needs to be very strong on that.”

However, there have been suggestions that the role of the European Court of Justice in settling grant or consortia disputes under current association agreements for non-EU member states in Horizon 2020 may deter the UK government from seeking such a deal for the EU’s next research programme, Framework Programme 9.

Professor Buchan said that industrialists, civil servants and most MPs had thought that membership of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) had been a “really, really good thing for us to continue to belong to”, but the UK has opted to leave because of the role of the ECJ.

Professor Buchan continued: “I had hoped associate member status would be the priority of the government.

“But if [the UK] is not going to be an associate member, then we’ve got to find alternative ways to maintain that activity. It’s not just the cash, the money, the funding, it’s the network – it’s the access to the talent.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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