UK academics should not rely on their universities to save them from Brexit fallout

For those reliant on EU funding, seeking appointments at continental universities is the only sensible course, says Peter Coveney

March 21, 2019
Brexit illustration
Source: Miles Cole

Given the jaw-dropping lack of accountability that the UK government and its prime minister have shown to the entire nation over the Brexit process, it is clear that it is now a question of every person for themselves in terms of salvaging what we can of our own livelihoods and the UK’s intellectual and economic vibrancy.

That is why, at the beginning of this month, I took up a professorship in applied high performance computing at the University of Amsterdam. I will keep my chair in physical chemistry at UCL, as well as my directorship of its centre for computational science, but I will now split my time between the UK and the Netherlands.

Domestic funding for some of the areas I work in has dwindled over recent years, but I have hugely benefited from participation in several major research projects funded by the European Union. These have been run at a scale that is typically well beyond UK funding agencies, involving well-funded research dissemination and management of a kind that national agencies have been slow to replicate. The accompanying international recognition has opened many doors to new opportunities, which have taught me new and different ways to do things.

Involvement with multidisciplinary teams of talented colleagues from across the continent particularly suits people like me, for whom domain boundaries merely represent obstacles to intellectual progress. But as soon as the chaotic and foolish decision to trigger Article 50 was taken, I saw the writing on the wall. Pessimistic about the government’s commitment and ability to promptly negotiate continuing affiliation to EU research programmes, I decided 14 months ago to take matters into my own hands.

I expect the UK to take a decade or more to recover from the folly of withdrawing from the EU, as opposed to seeking to lead it. And I have no intention of remaining holed up in a regime of limited funding that has increasingly been driven by economic imperatives but – despite many claims to the contrary – has never found a modus operandi for working with industry.

I am the coordinator (leader) of a couple of multimillion-euro EU projects, one with eight co-investigators and the other with 14. While the UK government has committed to underwriting the funding of UK co-investigators in such projects, no similar guarantee has been extended to me as their coordinator, as if scientific leadership is less of a concern. This is a problem since legal advice suggests that if a coordinator is from a third country, as the UK would be in a no-deal Brexit, that country might be expected to fund the entire project. Hence, my doing nothing would put all participants’ research and some livelihoods at risk. It is a risk that I am not prepared to run.

The UK could have been a central player in the development of supercomputing to enable bigger, better and faster science, via a new EU initiative called EuroHPC. I do not now expect UK-based researchers to play any significant role, and all the research and development that has already been conducted will be lost to them. But my Amsterdam chair – which has arisen out of my own efforts to build on my European relationships – will at least allow me personally to remain involved. All in all, this is plainly the only sensible course for me to have embarked on.

In the past few months, we have read about new initiatives that UK universities have been undertaking to allow their academics, in principle, to continue participating in EU funding through institution-wide affiliation with universities within the EU. But I am not sure at present what they have to show for it: the coming months and years will reveal what such initiatives actually amount to.

In November, UCL responded to decisions by the UK’s “big three” of Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford to establish tie-ups with, respectively, the Technical University of Munich, LMU Munich and four Berlin universities by announcing a plan to establish partnerships with a set of continental institutions. These include (bafflingly) the entire Max Planck Society. They also include two institutions in the Netherlands. Not Amsterdam, but I am pleased to say that UCL has encouraged me to develop these links anyway. And, wherever I turn, colleagues tell me that I have made a smart move.

Should they follow my lead? My own experience tells me that it is more effective to act alone because coordination at the institutional level is often slow and cumbersome, and not targeted towards meeting immediate needs. Those colleagues that don’t make their own arrangements are certainly taking a chance.

The way I see it, the new opportunities that will be afforded to me by my position in the Netherlands are one of the few positive outcomes from the shambles of Brexit. I expect to spend a significant amount of time in Amsterdam, enjoying the fresh air and safe haven from the draining uncertainty that currently pervades the UK.

Peter Coveney is professor of physical chemistry and director of the Centre for Computational Science at UCL and professor of applied high performance computing at the University of Amsterdam.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK scholars should not rely on their employers for rescue after Brexit

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Reader's comments (1)

Good for you, for sure. Good for other professors and senior academic who already secured international recognition and fame have a privilege to work where they want. Sadly, the same can not be said about postdocs, doing all research and having no job security at all. The same can not be said about low-rank lecturers, overloaded with teaching and grant applications but having little recognition and visibility for it. They are the people supporting the academic pyramid, on top of which an established professor can proudly proclaim "every person for themselves". I fail to see how your own responsibility is any better than the one of the prime minister.

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