Brexit: UK warned not to miss out on research ‘Champions League’

UK alone could not match ERC prestige, senior Swiss research figure tells MPs

July 6, 2016
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‘It’s not just about money’: ‘Even if you replicate a UK competition with all the money you can put on the table, it’s just not going to be the real Champions League’

The UK will be unable to replicate the European Union’s “Champions League” of research and will miss out on top researchers if it goes solo in science post-Brexit, a senior figure in Swiss research has told MPs.

Martin Vetterli, president of the National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation, was giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on 5 July, at a hearing on Leaving the EU: Implications and opportunities for science and research.

Switzerland’s treatment by the EU on research is seen by some as a salutary example for the UK post-Brexit.

Universities UK plans to lobby the Westminster government to secure associated country status within Horizon 2020, the EU’s current framework programme for research, so British universities can continue to participate after a Brexit.

The EU suspended talks with Switzerland – which is part of the single market as a member of the European Free Trade Association and previously observed freedom of movement – on its status as a Horizon 2020 associated country after Swiss voters backed restrictions on immigration in a 2014 referendum.

Switzerland has since gained partial association, but must ratify a free movement deal with new EU member Croatia next year or face being kicked out of Horizon 2020.

Professor Vetterli said: “It’s not just about money, it’s about the quality of the [research] competition.

“For example, if you take the Champions League of the [research] competition in Europe, which is the European Research Council [part of Horizon 2020], the universities across Europe rank each other according to success in the ERC. So even if you replicate a UK competition with all the money you can put on the table, it’s just not going to be the real thing.”

He said that ERC participation was “extremely important to attract the top notch researchers to Swiss universities”.

Professor Vetterli said that earlier in the day he had spoken to “a professor from one of the major UK universities” who was “thinking of taking a 50 per cent appointment in an EU university so he could continue to participate in the ERC competition”.

He added of Switzerland: “I think if we get kicked out [of Horizon 2020] in 2017, which is not unlikely, then it will be a major blow potentially, because as a science hub we will be less attractive.”

On freedom of movement, Professor Vetterli said that “researchers go where the good science is. They like to move. They don’t like paperwork.”

Associated countries must pay a contribution to the EU to participate in framework programmes, but do not have any say in the size of the research budget.

Professor Vetterli said that Switzerland had found it “not so easy to try to bargain in science issues” given that the political decisions were taken by the EU and member states in Brussels.

Sir Ian Diamond, chair of UUK’s research policy network and University of Aberdeen vice-chancellor, said of the future post-Brexit: “We certainly need a model which is similar to those of the associated countries at the moment.

“But in addition, I believe very strongly, we need to make sure we have some influence over the future direction of European science.”

Angus Dalgleish, of Scientists for Britain, a lobbying group that aims to counter the “political narrative” that UK science would suffer in a Brexit, said that there were “plenty of models that can be followed. I don’t see that the doom and gloom predicted by so many of my colleagues for science will occur…There’s been a lot of hysteria.”

Professor Dalgleish, a cancer specialist, said that the UK was “not leaving the European Union health, science [programmes], etc, we’re trying to leave the European superstate”.

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