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.