As luck would have it, my turn to blog falls in the week the UK withdrew from the European Union.
Like most scientists I think this was a bad idea, given what the European project has enabled in terms of creating world-leading research facilities, promoting diverse research collaborations with free movement of students and staff, and funding. The UK has been a net beneficiary of the Horizon Programme, and the Framework Programme before it – winning more in research funding than the UK tariff ever contributed; and the UK has helped set the research agenda by using its strong voice in the EU commission – ensuring alignment of EU funding programmes with our National research strengths. A great example of this is the Innovative Medicines Initiative under which Southampton prospered as part of the U-BIOPRED project. Now we have lost this voice, it will be up to our French and German colleagues to fight the case for excellence when it comes to determining the criteria for disbursing the 94 billion Euros that are likely to be up for grabs in the Horizon Europe programme.
Whether, and on what terms the UK will be able to compete for this wealth is one of the big unknowns this week. My fear is that R&D will be just one more chip on the negotiating table as the UK tries to settle a wider trade deal, and that (as a result) we will not have an agreement in place by the time the Horizon Europe programme starts on 1st Jan 2021. The same goes for the ERASMUS+ programme that promotes mobility within the EU and has helped to enrich our research groups with new skills and collaborations. The Wellcome Trust, working with the think-tank Bruegel have just completed a simulated negotiation, which came to the conclusion that it is unlikely that a comprehensive agreement for science will be reached by the end of the year, unless it is uncoupled from the wider negotiation. I was heartened therefore by the statement on Friday from Universities UK, along with 36 other major domestic and international organisations, that they will work together to ensure their governments and the EU commission pursue a swift agreement on R&D and will no doubt be lobbying for separate negotiations.
Despite these worries, there are the odd glimmers of hope and optimism: the government will launch a new scheme for screening incoming scholars from abroad that will be overseen by UKRI and not the oft ruthless Home Office; the government says that science is a bigger part of its policy platform than ever before; it “plans” to increase spending on research and innovation from 1.6 to 2.4% of GDP; and it wants to cut a swathe through research bureaucracy. The EU was not standing in the way of the UK doing any of these things of course, but it may have taken current events for some to realise that we need a world-class sector to deliver all this innovation.