Global funding council: researchers keen, governments less so

Spike in interest in collaborative funding arrangements in wake of UK’s vote for Brexit

February 15, 2018
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Academics and university leaders have expressed renewed interest in the creation of a global platform for competitive research funding, but the idea must first overcome the reluctance of governments to pool their resources.

The formation of an international funding council has been discussed more widely since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, which brings with it the prospect that British higher education institutions might fall out of the bloc’s collaborative research frameworks. The launch of a science funding body open to scholars from around the world – or potentially, from across the Commonwealth – is seen by some as a possible alternative means of building cross-border partnerships and encouraging excellence.

The EU’s funding schemes are moving in the same direction, with an influential report commissioned by the European Commission proposing last year that countries such as Australia and Canada should be allowed to participate in the successor programme to Horizon 2020. The report, produced by a group chaired by Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, said that associate membership of EU schemes should “not [be] confined to a particular part of the world” and that science was getting “more and more open”.

Under such an arrangement, participating countries would be expected to contribute to the framework programme budget, or to allow researchers from EU nations to participate in their national funding schemes.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, told Times Higher Education that there was “quite a bit of interest” in his country about the possibility of the UK launching a global research fund. Stronger links with EU funding schemes were also an intriguing possibility and, while Canadian researchers can already take part in EU-led collaborations, domestic funding for such partnerships was typically insufficient, he said.

“We think now there is a new opportunity: we have a government that is expressly internationally orientated and that values science, and a research community that has grown up as international collaborators,” Mr Davidson said. “I don’t think it would be a huge leap for Canadian researchers to see the benefits [of mutual funding arrangements] because, when you look at other countries that have participated, they have seen very great benefits.”

Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Sydney, said that Australian researchers would “welcome further discussions with our funding agencies and government colleagues in Australia in terms of exploring the possibilities of participating in EU funding schemes”.

“I think it would be a powerful signal of intent about the importance of research for Australia’s and Europe’s future prosperity and security to see this as something [that the government] would actively support,” Professor Ivison said.

Vice-chancellors in the UK and Australia have already initiated discussions about the possibility of setting up a bilateral research fund post-Brexit.

However, Philippe De Wilde, deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at the University of Kent, said that any global research fund would probably be “very small” because of countries’ reluctance to share research funding. Global researchers were already able to join EU-funded projects but tended not to, he pointed out.

“The reason you don’t see more Australian, Canadian, Chinese or US [collaborators on EU projects] is this tendency of countries to keep their research projects, research labs and researchers in their country,” he said.

A Canadian government spokeswoman said that the country already had extensive science, technology and innovation (ST&I) links with the EU.

“Canadian participation in these ST&I undertakings is continuously subject to Canadian [government] strategic ST&I priorities and/or opportunities as well as its available resources,” she said.

A spokesman for Australian education minister Simon Birmingham ruled out his country’s involvement.

“The Australian government invests billions in local research, including in collaborations with leading overseas researchers. There are no plans for the current arrangements to change,” he said. “Australian taxpayers expect their money to be invested in Australian research.” 

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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