Post-Brexit UK ‘may need to launch global funding council’

Country’s scientists must be able to demonstrate that they can continue competing on the world stage, senior academic says

May 30, 2017
Global currencies

The UK would have to launch its own science funding council open to academics from around the world if it lost access to the European research framework post-Brexit, according to a leading academic.

Dame Janet Thornton, a member of the European Research Council’s scientific council, told Times Higher Education that a programme similar to the ERC, funding the best curiosity-driven projects, would be necessary to ensure that UK scientists can continue competing on a world stage.

The current European Commission research programme, Horizon 2020, is on track to spend about €80 billion (£69.2 billion) on research between 2014 and 2020. Within this, the ERC has a budget of €13.1 billion that funds only blue-skies research that has no immediate applications, solely on the basis of excellence.

“To get an ERC grant is a very important badge of honour because you are competing with the rest of Europe,” said Dame Janet, who was director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) for 14 years until 2015. “Not being part of that, I think, really has the potential to weaken UK science.”

Dame Janet argued that, if the UK was not able to access EU funding after Brexit, an equivalent body would be needed “to make up” for the loss. “It would [have to] be open, to do science in the UK but open to everybody in the world,” she said.

Dame Janet’s suggestion envisages a system where countries could contribute to the budget of a UK-based funding council in order to be able to apply for grants, like the associated member status held by some nations that are not part of the EU but that participate in the ERC system.

And she argued that any UK-based scheme should be built on the model of the ERC.

“It is really a case where the scientists have won the day,” she said. “They have created a scheme which really promotes excellent frontier science against all the applied [research].

“The scientists came and they said ‘this is what we need’, and we now have this organisation that has been so successful. I think that as UK scientists we should make that case,” she said.

Dame Janet, now a senior research group leader at EMBL-EBI, said that Brexit had created a lot of uncertainty at the ERC.

“It is not clear what the procedure will be yet at all…At the moment we aren’t making specific plans, the UK is still a member,” she said.

While the UK is scheduled to leave the EU by the end of March 2019, the process of applying for funding from the ERC usually takes about a year, so it is not yet clear how applications from UK researchers in 2018 will be treated, she added.

European research leaders have warned that the UK’s exit from the EU’s research framework could lead to EU funding being distributed on the basis of capacity building and geographical spread, as opposed to excellence. But Dame Janet said that she did not think this would happen to ERC-funded science as other European nations with excellent science, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, would still be taking part.

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