Post-Brexit research fears spark Welsh university alliance

New R&D network will help Wales become more research competitive amid fears over loss of regional funds after Brexit

October 6, 2020

A new research partnership between Welsh universities is set to be established to help avoid a potentially huge drop in research funding after Brexit.

The creation of the research collaboration – which is likely to consolidate existing alliances across the principality – follows Universities Wales’ announcement on 6 October that it will implement the recommendations of a new study into the region’s research competitiveness.

In the report, its author Graeme Reid, professor of science and research policy at UCL, highlights a potentially devastating loss of research income for Welsh universities and more widely in Wales when the UK leaves the European Union in January.

The potential crisis in research funding concerns Welsh research’s high dependence on European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), from which Welsh universities received £331 million as lead organisations between 2014 and 2020, says the report published on 5 October.

Overall, Wales received some £2.5 billion in ESIF funds between 2014 and 2020, more than double the amount received by Scotland (£1 billion) and far more on a per capita basis than England (which received £7 billion), the paper adds. However, Welsh institutions won only about £100 million from the excellence-based Horizon 2020 scheme over the same period, while England picked up some £6 billion, the report notes.

While the UK government has promised to replace European structural funds for the regions after Brexit, “the vehicle for this replacement funding is unclear, and there is no promise that any of it will be earmarked for universities or research”, writes Professor Reid.

He also raises the issue of how Welsh universities would receive these replacement funds when the UK’s research funds are generally awarded on the basis of excellence via research council grants.

“The question is how can Wales pivot from receiving European regional development funding to depending on winning funding in competitive grants,” Professor Reid told Times Higher Education.

“The Welsh government has been calling for earmarked funds [for research] for the past three years, and I don’t see any sign of that happening,” he added.

Setting up an effective research collaboration between universities, however, could help Welsh universities become more competitive in winning grants, the report suggests.

Creating an “overarching structure for research and innovation clusters in Wales could help facilitate collaboration in Wales”, it adds, mirroring the successful model of the N8, an alliance of eight research-intensive universities in the north of England, and Midlands Innovation, which links eight universities in the Midlands.

Given that only two Welsh universities attract significant levels of research funding (Cardiff University and Swansea University, which received about £115 million and £95 million in 2019, respectively; no other university received more than £25 million, according the report), the proposed alliance would need to recognise and capitalise on the “greater range of diversity” in institutions than those found in the N8 or other UK alliances, which tend to share a “distinct focus, governance and structure” and are more closely situated, the report adds.

“Diversity is an untapped strength of the Welsh research base. At a time when many universities are experiencing financial pressures and uncertainties, it is more important than ever that Welsh institutions work in partnership to strengthen research and innovation in regions across the country,” Professor Reid said.

Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University and chair of Universities Wales’ Research and Innovation Network, who commissioned the report, described it as “insightful and timely”.

“[It] makes clear the urgency with which we must act to strengthen research and innovation across Wales, and provides us with a clear approach for doing so,” said Professor Boyle, who added that “having a single and coherent voice for research and innovation [would] support Wales’ recovery from the pandemic and ensure that we are best placed to make the most of the changing funding environment in the UK”.

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