UK research status ‘at real risk’ as Horizon row damage widens

UK will give up its leadership role in EU-wide research projects for a back seat if association impasse drags on, warns Liverpool science chief

May 10, 2022
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The UK is at “real risk” of losing its position as a research leader within Europe – in addition to millions of pounds of funding – as uncertainty over association to Horizon Europe continues, a leading physicist has warned.

Carsten Welsch, who heads the University of Liverpool’s physics department, said that he and other senior scientists across the country could soon have to give up their roles as coordinators of major Europe-wide projects – and potentially exit them altogether – given the deadlock over the UK’s membership of the European Union’s flagship research scheme.

The German physicist told Times Higher Education that his university would be forced to step aside as the leader of a €2.6 million (£2.2 million) EU-funded Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions doctoral network that would bring some of Europe’s leading PhD researchers to work on the creation of novel plasma accelerators that could be used to create high-energy lasers in industry, medicine and science.

“The good news is that UK Research and Innovation has committed to fund the UK part of this project – about €650,000 – but this is about more than money as we won’t be leading the project in Liverpool,” explained Professor Welsch.

“The role of Liverpool will be dramatically reduced as previously we would appear in all the communications and manage all the events. There is something excellent that we have built up over the past decade – this is now at real risk of being lost.”

If the UK does not gain full membership of Horizon Europe, Liverpool will not be able to register prestigious Marie Skłodowska Curie doctoral students, who are eligible for salary and benefits worth up to €4,710 a month over four years, added Professor Welsch. “These researchers are often driving the research so it may cause a loss of research power and visibility,” he explained.

Liverpool has sometimes been described as the “home of accelerator science” following the creation of the Cockcroft Institute in 2006, a collaboration between several universities in north-west England.

Professor Welsch, who is based at the Cockroft, said that Liverpool and other British universities faced a significant struggle to remain world leaders in key research areas if they were excluded from the EU’s research scheme. His university was also at risk of being removed from a consortium that had won €3 million in EU infrastructure grants, he said.

“We are going from leading €100 million projects to a marginal role where we contribute bits and pieces – years and years of research leadership are at risk and urgent action is needed,” he explained.

His warning follows reports that many UK-based winners of European Research Council grants were considering transferring their grants to European universities after receiving multiple job offers, despite the UK’s guarantee to support any UK-based projects approved for funding.

While Professor Welsch, who has previously led five Marie Skłodowska Curie doctoral networks, welcomed UKRI’s pledge, the funder has “not yet said exactly what it will commit to”, he said.

“Will it cover the costs at exactly the same level, including overheads, because we know the EU and UK take a very different approach when it comes to covering the full economic cost of research,” said Professor Welsch.

“We can just about survive with this guarantee but we will not have anything close to the level of partnership and leadership that we have had.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

In a similar position myself. When are we going to reverse Brexit and put an end to this juvenilia?
All eyes on UKRI to see if they attempt any penny pinching when the grants are awarded for the MSCN DTNs - especially in terms of salary/stipend for the students which (as documented above) is FAR superior compared to regular UKRI funded students.
Brexit will remain for the foreseeable future. As I understand it, to re-join we would have to accept the Euro and other undesirable things that even as someone who voted to remain, I could not support and reckon most of the UK population could not either. We just have to make the best of it, as is often the case in academic life.

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