Higher education minister Sam Gyimah has said that there is “no ambiguity” about the UK’s desire to continue to participate in European Union research funding schemes after Brexit, but that “we will not do it at any price”.
Mr Gyimah also told a Brexit science summit hosted by the Commons Science and Technology Committee that he would “fight” within government to ensure that scientists are able to move freely between the UK and the EU.
On the eve of the summit, the Wellcome Trust called on the UK to be prepared to pay more than it currently does to maintain its membership of EU framework programmes, but also said that Brussels should be “pragmatic” about the terms of the UK’s continued participation.
The report estimated that the UK received €8.8 billion (£7.8 billion) of direct EU funding for research between 2007 and 2013, which it described as an “excellent return” on an estimated contribution of €5.4 billion. It added, however, that existing associated country contribution models would place the UK “somewhere between being a small net beneficiary and a moderate net contributor” after Brexit.
Mr Gyimah told the summit that there was “no ambiguity about the UK’s desire to participate” in the successor programme to Horizon 2020, known as framework programme nine.
“But we will not do it at any price. It has to be a deal that works for the UK,” he said.
The minister added that if the UK continues to take part in EU schemes such as the framework programmes, any ongoing contribution should be proportional and designed to cover the cost involved.
On researcher mobility, Mr Gyimah said that no student or staff member would be asked to leave the UK the day after Brexit and that he wanted to make sure that any policy responses to Brexit did not “undercut” the importance of people to science.
One of universities’ key concerns about leaving the EU is whether they will be able to continue attracting the brightest and the best from Europe in the years ahead.
“If we are going to be the go-to place [for science], money is important, but ultimately it is about people, human ingenuity and facilitating their movement…You have my commitment that I understand that and I will be fighting for that in government,” Mr Gyimah said.
Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said that the benefits of participation in the framework programmes went far beyond the funding opportunities, highlighting their “absolutely amazing” role in establishing research networks.
“These are the things that really drive science,” she said. “Networks are relationships that take a long, long time to build, and they can be destroyed very easily. We are at high risk of that at the moment.”
Speaking at a separate event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy on 22 February, Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that there was “no reason why Brexit in and of itself needs to damage UK higher education in the slightest”.
“Access to Erasmus, access to the European research area, EU student recruitment are all either independent from the European Union or can be maintained through multilateral agreements or unilateral policy concessions,” said Dr Jones, who is openly pro-Brexit.
However, Dr Jones said that UK universities would find it difficult to engage academics to play a role in “defining Britain’s place on the world stage” post-Brexit because scholars have “very limited bandwidth left to deal with additional roles required by the government”, particularly in public policy or public diplomacy.
Dr Jones said that the “progressive marketisation of the higher education sector” and the “disruption that is being created to universities’ finances, to their sustainability as institutions and the impact on individual academics” meant that scholars “quite reasonably question why they should support a government’s activities when they don’t share their priorities”.