As Brexit looms, UK universities must speed up their bridge building

If access to European research funding is to be maintained, more UK research universities need to forge formal links with EU institutions, says Peter Coveney

November 15, 2018
Bridge construction
Source: iStock/Asergieiev

Last week’s announcement by UCL of partnerships with institutions in a range of European cities is the latest sign that the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is concentrating minds in UK higher education.

The move is a variation on the more formal institutional tie-ups previously announced by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London, but all have the same purpose: to guarantee continued access to European Union research funding even if the UK loses access to future framework programmes post-Brexit.

From researchers’ point of view, the concern is partly to maintain a plurality of funding options. For instance, domestic funding for my field, supercomputing, has mysteriously fallen off in recent years, following a previous hike, but the discipline has been kept vibrant by European funding.

But winning EU grants is also about the prestige, excitement and greater scientific impact of international collaboration. It is about playing in the Champions League of research. This is why, for researchers, losing access to EU funding would be a bitter blow even if all the money the UK nominally pays into the EU research budget were redirected into domestic science budgets.

This is particularly true given that UK Research and Innovation, the new body overseeing public research funding, is something of a chimera, whose approach still remains largely unclear. What stipulations will the government impose, via UKRI, regarding “innovation” and economic impact in exchange for upping the UK’s spending on research to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product over the next decade? Academics welcome the increased funding, but do not like such constraints.

Universities, meanwhile, understandably fret that the benefits of the increase in domestic research spending will be undermined if, at the same time, they lose access to EU funding. But there are reasons to think that universities may be less averse than their academics to a redirection of money currently paid to the EU into the domestic science budget.

The prestige of international collaboration does not directly bring revenue to universities. It does so indirectly, of course – not least by attracting high-flying and high-fee-paying international students. But the amount of European funding that goes into central administrations is considerably lower than the amount of domestic funding that does so.

EU grants attract a flat rate of 25 per cent overhead, which applies equally to all participants, whether they are from academia, industry or small to medium-sized enterprises. This often makes collaborations between industry and academia much more productive than in the UK, where non-academic participation in research council-funded projects is bureaucratic and peripheral. However, 25 per cent is a lot less than the figure of about 50 per cent of UK grants that accrue to central administrations.

Indeed, in the past, academics in some universities were urged not to apply for EU funding because the overheads are too low and the research is deemed too “loss making”. However, the prestige of the European Research Council’s individual investigator awards in particular has largely stamped out that attitude, and Cambridge, Imperial, Oxford and UCL constitute the four biggest recipients of ERC grants in the whole EU.

Institutions' attitudes have also shifted as they have worked out ways to redirect euros into their central administrations to meet various claimed indirect costs (such as requiring academics to charge for the time they spend on research funded by the grant), meaning that UK academics get less direct funding from an EU grant than many of their continental colleagues. Yet I can’t help wondering why more UK institutions have not yet established continental partnerships, given the political circumstances.

The reason may have nothing to do with whether EU-funded research is loss-making. Perhaps some vice-chancellors remain convinced that a Brexit deal will be done that maintains access to research funding. Perhaps European partners are harder to secure than you might think. But as the clock ticks down on Brexit, those who have not yet found a way to secure their EU funding need to move fast.

Peter Coveney is director of the Centre for Computational Science and professor of physical chemistry at UCL. He coordinates several multimillion-euro EU grants.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Link up before it’s too late

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