Spending pledges may not restore the love to UK science

Association to Horizon Europe would also be positive, but hostile mood music over immigration still reverberates 

November 28, 2019
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For UK-based researchers, watching the development of the European Union’s next framework programme is a little like watching an ex-lover blithely getting on with their life post you.

Yes, strictly speaking it was the UK that did the breaking up with the EU, but the referendum result broke the hearts of the vast majority of academics. And, yes, there is still a hope that the breach may yet be repaired if the political gods are kind and the UK is able to associate to the forthcoming Horizon Europe programme. But the political gods don’t look very kind at the moment, and no sensible researcher is putting away their handkerchief just yet.

Some observers feared that the UK’s absence from the Horizon Europe negotiations could result in a programme so different from its predecessor, Horizon 2020, that the UK wouldn’t want to cuddle up to it anyway. The UK has traditionally been seen as a key player in western Europe’s tug-of-war with the east and south over whether the distribution of European Research Council funding should be spread more evenly around the continent.

As our cover feature on Horizon Europe makes clear, that peril appears to have been avoided. Yet there are whispers that participation in the ERC might be restricted to EU member states, on the grounds that wider access could accelerate the brain drain from EU members to successful non-members.

On the other hand, there are few locks that can’t be picked with a wad of cash. Despite the UK’s absence from Horizon Europe, the commission has proposed that its core budget should rise to €94 billion (£80 billion), compared with €77 billion for Horizon 2020. However, as we report in our news pages, that funding level now appears to be under threat because of national governments’ unwillingness to meet the commission’s proposed overall EU budget. An association agreement with the UK could potentially make up for the losses.

However, the existing strength of the UK’s science base is such that, under Horizon 2020 rules, it would be likely to win more funding than it puts in – as Switzerland also does. As Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, has pointed out, the commission’s proposal to make associated nations pay in what their researchers draw out looks fair but unworkable given treasuries’ unwillingness to commit to open-ended funding. That said, if the lavish funding pledges being made during the UK’s general election campaign are anything to go by, that sort of fiscal discipline is well out of fashion.

Research and development has shared in the promissory largesse. The Labour Party has committed to increasing UK R&D spending to 1.85 per cent of gross domestic product within two years and 3 per cent by 2030; it is currently 1.7 per cent. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have committed to 2.4 per cent, with an ultimate aspiration to hit 3 per cent. Stephen Metcalfe, a Tory former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, told a science hustings event at the Royal Society last week that this will make the UK a “go-to place” for science.

It certainly won’t hurt. But there are two worries. One is that all the extra money may be spent on politically defined priorities, rather than on curiosity-driven research. The distinction between those two concepts may be a fuzzy one, but the Conservatives’ proposal to establish a UK version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is only the latest policy development to provoke fears about the neglect of blue-skies research.

Some are concerned that Horizon Europe is also tilted too much towards innovation, but one of the chief reasons that the ERC is so beloved by scientists is that it remains driven solely by the excellence of proposals.

The second worry is around immigration policy. Before he quit politics in protest over Brexit, Jo Johnson, as universities minister, hailed the government’s plan to implement “a fast-track visa route to attract the world’s finest minds”, including an abolition of the cap on Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas and an accelerated path to settled status. But the rhetoric about immigration from the Tories – likely to win the election on the back of their promise to “get Brexit done” – remains equivocal at best. And even if the UK ends up associating to Horizon Europe, a nation that has deliberately turned its back on the continent due – at least in part – to hostility to European migration is unlikely to tug at the heartstrings of talented European researchers looking for their next career move.

Nor is it likely to encourage those already here to stay. Only last week, University of Glasgow professor of anatomy Fabio Quondamatteo announced on Twitter that he was quitting the UK for the Republic of Ireland because of “the uncertainties in planning a long term life for our Italian family in the UK”. Hostile mood music reverberates long and loud.

The uncertain prospect of ill-defined new funding streams is unlikely to be enough to prevent other European researchers from similarly falling out of love with the UK and taking their ERC grants elsewhere.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Can love be rekindled?

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