Jo Johnson tries to reassure on pan-European collaboration

But research leaders in the UK say their European counterparts are already freezing them out when it comes to applying for EU money

June 30, 2016
Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science
Source: PA

The universities minister Jo Johnson has said that he would fight “discrimination” against UK researchers applying for European Union grants after last week’s Brexit vote threw British participation in schemes such as Horizon 2020 into confusion.

Some European researchers have already said that they will not put in joint bids with UK academics for EU grants given the uncertainty of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

In a speech today in London, Mr Johnson said that “in legal terms…nothing has yet changed” and it was “business as usual for Horizon 2020”.

“I would be very concerned and I’d be grateful if you could bring to my attention any examples of discrimination against UK participants in these programmes,” he said.

Mr Johnson said that in the past 24 hours he had spoken to the EU commissioner Carlos Moedas to make him aware of his “vigilance on this question” and had received “support” in return.

The minister later said that he had yet to receive a “dossier of evidence” that UK researchers were already losing out on EU funds, but said that if he saw “specific evidence” his department would make representations to Brussels.

“There shouldn’t be any legal basis for discrimination,” he said.

But it appears that UK researchers are already being frozen out. One director of a university research centre, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Times Higher Education that “it is clear to my EU colleagues that involvement of a UK partner in a bid would be a risk and therefore (given the highly competitive nature of the funding) would weaken a bid”.

“In these circumstances it would be selfish of me to push the issue and put forward bids, expect to join bids or collaborate in reworking bids,” he added.

One of the other key issues now is how well researchers are represented in Brexit negotiations and what conditions – such as free movement of people – the UK might have to agree to in order to remain part of future EU research framework programmes such as Horizon 2020.

In his speech, Mr Johnson said that it was “too early to say what a new settlement will look like, and exactly what our relationship to successive framework programmes will be, but I’m confident we will continue to thrive”.

Asked later what the future held, Mr Johnson said that the arguments put forward by the scientific community during the campaign would be “helpful” during negotiations. He said that he could not “commit to any particular definition of freedom of movement” but said it would still remain “important that the UK remains open to the brightest and best”.

“We’re not going to stop brilliant people from coming to work in our universities,” he said.

Mr Johnson also made it clear that the government would press ahead with its legislative programme, including the Higher Education and Research Bill.

There have been fears that the creation of a new body, UK Research and Innovation, to encompass all current research councils would create excessive bureaucracy and fail to attract top calibre leaders.

But Mr Johnson stressed that research council leaders will “retain their autonomy” and be able to “employ the best staff”.

“Recruitment and terms and conditions” would be controlled by the research councils and there would be “greater freedom” from ministers for them to control their delivery plans, which meant a “net gain for academic autonomy”, he added.

He also tried to address concerns that the new system would separate the funding of research and teaching, creating mismatches in some subjects.

The research excellence framework (REF), and the proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF) would be “mutually reinforcing”, he said.

“We will ask institutions to consider how they promote research-led teaching in their TEF submissions; and I have asked Lord Stern, as part of his review of the REF, to consider the impact of excellent teaching,” Mr Johnson said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Nothing reported here is reassuring. Quite the opposite of reassuring actually. Bo Johnson must be deluded if he thinks that Brussels will concede to any demands for restrictions in the freedom of movement (or for selective acceptance only of "the brightest and best" from the EU).
"Discrimination". "Frozen out". The UK has top competence in virtually every possible field where EU money is available to apply for. So why on earth would anyone ever want to exclude british researchers? Doesn't make sense, does it? Dear Mr J. Johnson, do you have even a vague inkling of an idea of how much time and effort is spent on putting together these proposals? Of the tiny details that are inspected for possible formal problems prior to submission? The UK is right now in some form of EU purgatory, the shape and size of which noone seems to have a clue about. Now, what do you expect the scientific world to do? Proceed as if the nothing that we all (including your brother, it seems) wish had happened, really did? That would amount to staking your carefully written proposal in a gamble without knowing the odds, the rules or even what game you are playing. Now, why should avoiding to play such an idiots game be considered "discrimination" or "freezing out"? The EU has lots of possible levels participation and irrespective of precisely where the UK ends up there will be no problem for EU scientists to co-write proposals with british scientists. So, Mr. Johnson, you just go tell your brother to carefully explain just how ... ah, apologies, it seems he scarpered already. Too bad. Well, whenever you're ready.