In which disciplines could Brexit hurt UK collaboration the most?

Analysis of data on current research networks suggests that subjects where expensive kit is shared could be vulnerable

March 29, 2018
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Team challenge: the ‘problem of shared facilities will be more acute’ in science subjects

Since the UK voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, much of the focus in terms of the potential impact on higher education has revolved around research collaboration between the UK and other EU nations.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, concerns were raised that pan-European projects would ditch the UK as a partner given the future uncertainty over whether it would remain part of European Commission research programmes.

While projects funded under the current Horizon 2020 programme now have certainty after the UK’s continued participation was confirmed as part of Brexit negotiations, its role in the European research landscape after 2020 is still very much unknown.

The potential direct impact of any loss of EU funding on the UK and its universities can be estimated by looking at where such money currently flows, but what might be the knock-on effect for collaboration more generally? After all, funding from programmes such as Horizon 2020 can sometimes simply be a facilitator for cross-border working that continues once networks of academics have been established.

One way to view this is to look at the current level of co-authorship between the UK and European neighbours compared with academics based in other parts of the world, data that can be extracted from Elsevier’s Scopus database of indexed research using its SciVal analysis tool.

This shows that well over half (56 per cent) of the research published by UK academics in conjunction with an international collaborator between 2014 and 2017 involved a co-author based in Europe, a much bigger share than North America (44 per cent). Given that about half of all UK research (51 per cent) indexed in Scopus over the same period featured cross-border collaboration, the importance of continental universities to the nation’s academic networks cannot be overstated.

“Europe” in this context does mean the whole continent, whether countries are in the EU or not, but does the pattern hold when looking only at individual countries?

Although it is not possible to use SciVal to assess the UK’s collaboration with the EU as one bloc, viewing the top 10 nations for UK research collaboration worldwide reveals the dominance that co-authorship with the US has over any European nation.

Almost 30 per cent of all the UK’s internationally co-authored research featured a US author, way ahead of the most important European collaborator, Germany (15 per cent). It is also noticeable that EU countries make up only half of the top 10: China (11 per cent), Australia (10 per cent) and Canada (7 per cent) all play a prominent role. And Switzerland manages to figure as the 10th most significant collaborator (6 per cent of international papers) despite being a relatively small country and being outside the EU (although it is part of Horizon 2020).

However, does this worldwide pattern – which suggests that the UK already embarks on plenty of research without EU collaboration – repeat across subject areas?

Taking Europe – EU and non-EU – as a whole and looking at the seven subjects in which the UK publishes the most research overall suggests that it is physics and the life sciences that enjoy the strongest UK-Europe networks. In the SciVal topic areas of medicine; biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology; and physics and astronomy, European co-authors feature in 59 per cent or more of the UK’s collaborative efforts between 2014 and 2017.

However, one important, and rapidly growing, research area – computer science – leans less on pan-European co-authorship (51 per cent of international papers); and in engineering the European share drops below half.

Drilling down into these figures suggests that the increasing links that UK researchers are forging with China may be at least partly behind this trend.

In engineering, China is now the UK’s most important collaborator, with joint research between the countries showing a 37 per cent increase from 2014 to 2017, growth that is way ahead of any other country links even though cross-border working is generally on an upward curve. It means that almost a quarter of the UK’s international research in this discipline featured a Chinese co-author from 2014 to 2017.

Countries' share of UK's international collaboration by subject

In computer science, too, it is unlikely to be long before China becomes the UK’s top collaborator and overtakes the US, given that growth in UK-Chinese co-authored publications has been 42 per cent over the period versus just 12 per cent for UK-US collaboration.

For both subject areas, individual European partners make up much smaller shares, and their contributions are proportionately similar in size to subjects where it would typically be expected that pan-European cooperation might be lower, like the social sciences or the arts and humanities.

Compare this with subjects where collaboration across the EU is clearly acting as a major driver for the UK, fields such as medicine, biochemistry and particularly physics, where co-authorship with academics in Germany on its own represents a quarter of the UK’s collaborative output.

In effect, it points to areas where the sharing of expensive facilities is vital to research – physics and biotech being obvious examples – as being those where UK scholarship post-Brexit could be harmed if access to kit in other countries is restricted in any way.

Aline Courtois, who edited a recent report for UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education on European researchers’ perspectives about Brexit, said that findings from the study suggested that the “problem of shared facilities will be more acute” in science subjects.

One particular section of the report, on the views of researchers in Switzerland, shows that concerns could cut both ways though. It quotes one former head of department at a Swiss institution warning that its researchers might find they have “more limited access” to high-tech labs at institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and points out that facilities like the new Francis Crick Institute in London might be in demand.

“All of those are resources that European researchers may want to use,” the quoted head of department says.

But Dr Courtois also said that it was “difficult to establish for sure which disciplines will suffer the most”, adding that there were suggestions that academics in the UK were actually most worried about humanities and social sciences collaboration “as they doubted that the UK government would replace EU funding and schemes for these disciplines”.

“In other countries, interviewees stated that official figures do not adequately capture the extent of EU-wide collaboration, especially in the humanities and social sciences – as a lot happens without the support of large EU grants (but still requires [things like] free movement [of researchers]),” she also pointed out.

Therefore, despite the bibliometric data that are available, it remains difficult to predict how exactly how Brexit might change the collaborative landscape across disciplines. Many scholars in the UK and elsewhere in Europe will be hoping that agreements on research are thrashed out that, in the end, mean that Brexit has little effect at all.

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Print headline: Which pan-European research will be hit hardest by Brexit?

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