The universities minister has urged researchers in the UK to “work with” him to “deliver a Brexit that works”.
Chris Skidmore made the remarks, which may be greeted with scepticism by academics given the sector’s widespread opposition to leaving the European Union, during a speech at the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Oxfordshire.
“I’ve heard loud and clear the message that leaving the EU presents unique challenges to science, research and innovation in the UK,” Mr Skidmore said.
“So, I ask you and your fellow researchers and innovators to work with me to deliver a Brexit that works for your sector, and to help design the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU that builds on our scientific strengths and ingenuity.”
A survey of university staff conducted by Times Higher Education in 2016 found that 89 per cent of respondents supported Remain, and 40 per cent said that they would be more likely to leave the UK in the event of a Leave victory.
In his speech, Mr Skidmore said that the UK wanted to “have the option to associate” to future EU research programmes, including Horizon Europe, but was “also preparing in the event of a no-deal” Brexit, including underwriting funding for all competitive awards submitted before the UK leaves.
A portal set up by UK Research and Innovation to allow researchers to submit details of projects that might need underwriting has already had 5,000 registrations, Mr Skidmore added.
In a wide-ranging address, Mr Skidmore said that the government would be developing and publishing “in the coming months” a “road map” outlining how it would meet its target of the UK investing 2.4 per cent of its gross domestic product in research and development.
Meeting the target would “require significant increases in public investments in R&D across the UK”, Mr Skidmore said, but businesses and charities would have to up their spending, too, he noted.
The minister said that while public research funding has historically “been concentrated in particular places, notably the Golden Triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London”, now “we need to make sure we recognise the potential of other areas and the case for investing in them”.
With UKRI currently considering the balance of research spending, Mr Skidmore added that he “recognise[d] the great value of quality-related funding, and the role it plays in both building research capability across the disciplines and in providing additional sources of intelligence in our funding system”.
And he expressed concern about what he described as “lost Einsteins” – potential researchers who did not ultimately pursue that career path, seemingly “by reason of background”. Others were “driven out of promising research careers by harassment or bullying”, Mr Skidmore said.
“These issues matter both for their own sake – as they are the kind of ‘burning injustices’ this government has set out to tackle – and because tackling them will make for better science and research, from which society at large will benefit,” the minister said.