France has “rolled out the red carpet” for Australian students and researchers, with the nation’s higher education minister highlighting the opportunities south of the English Channel and suggesting that the UK will be shut out of key European research networks by Brexit.
A French delegation recently signed 24 agreements with Australian universities and other science and innovation partners, piggybacking on a A$50 billion (£27 billion) submarine contract awarded to Paris-based shipbuilders Naval Group in 2016.
Frédérique Vidal, France’s higher education, research and innovation minister, told Australia’s vice-chancellors, who were gathered for the Universities Australia higher education conference in Canberra, that the submarine deal would be a springboard for education, training, knowledge transfer and joint research in the southern continent.
“The European Union…deserves attention from Australian scientists,” said Dr Vidal, a biochemist and former president of the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis.
“Horizon 2020 constitutes the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.
“Australian scientists can participate in this endeavour by matching European funding. Projects…which are at the heart of Australia’s 2030 strategic plan even benefit from an EU-Australia co-funding mechanism.”
UK researchers, on the other hand, could be starved of such opportunities. “There will be tremendous changes after Brexit for research,” Dr Vidal told the conference.
“Brexit is a pity for the UK. We think, for example, that the owners of European Research Council fellowships will not be able to stay in the UK. A lot of researchers of universities and laboratories in [the] UK ask French universities to welcome them in the near future.”
There is still no clarity over whether the UK will join the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, which includes the ERC, as an associated country after Brexit. A no-deal Brexit could also end the UK’s ability to host ERC grant holders.
In a flurry of paperwork, nine Australian universities, a university-led network, two state governments and two government agencies signed a deal with Naval Group to establish an Australian-based “technological research platform” known as “OzCean Technocampus”.
Australia’s elite university network, the Group of Eight, signed a series of agreements with the French embassy, Naval Group and French aerospace giant Thales. The Australian National University, a Go8 member, formalised memoranda of understanding with the French university Paris Sciences et Lettres, the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the French National Space Agency.
“You have literally rolled out the red carpet for Australia to come and work cooperatively with France,” ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt told Dr Vidal at the conference. “My university will certainly avail itself of those opportunities.”
Some of the agreements were inked during a government-to-government symposium aimed at deepening bilateral collaborations, which was meeting for the second time.
The forum was exploring cooperation in areas ranging from health, ecology and agriculture to astronomy, energy, mining and artificial intelligence, Dr Vidal said. “These research areas are only the tip of the iceberg,” she explained.
“Our mutual strengths in sectors such as health and AI could greatly benefit from wider cooperation schemes…collaborations, publications and student exchanges.”
She highlighted France’s allure to students, saying that her country was “the fourth most attractive country on the planet for foreign students and the first non-English-speaking one”.
France could, she said, guarantee Australian students “a fruitful education, while enabling them to travel across Europe to experience all that our continent has to offer. If the Eiffel Tower is definitely staying in Paris, you still need to travel to Italy to see the Ponte Vecchio.”