“It’s possible to maintain the UK leadership in science through other mechanisms, we should be thinking creatively, but the clear and unanimous preference of our sector is to seek full association to Horizon Europe,” said UUKi director Vivienne Stern, adding that the prospect of an association doesn’t depend on a Brexit deal.
“We are in such an odd position now that it’s inevitable that our influence has been diluted”
Giving evidence to the committee, Stern and head of UK & EU policy at Wellcome Trust Beth Thompson highlighted the risks that protracted uncertainty around the UK’s association to Horizon Europe and barriers to mobility for EU staff and students could pose to the sector post-Brexit and urged clarity on the arrangements for research funding after 2021.
Although the UK government has agreed to underwrite funding for projects under the current framework, Horizon 2020, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, full association to its successor program has not yet been guaranteed and details of UK research funding post-Brexit are lacking.
With Horizon Europe still going through its legislative phase, the details are not clear yet but the timetable for negotiation is “ambitious,” according to Thompson.
The UK has historically been “disproportionately influential” and has a reputation as a leader in European research, the committee heard, but uncertainty around its participation in the next EU framework has dampened its influence.
“We are in such an odd position now that it’s inevitable that our influence has been diluted,” said Stern.
Both reported anecdotally that the uncertainty is already having a “chilling effect” on UK leadership of research projects and on its ability to retain top talent, with Thompson mentioning the case of a researcher refusing a Wellcome Trust fellowship out of fear of losing EU funding.
When asked whether they anticipate an increase in national scheme funding application in case of a no-deal Brexit, Stern and Thompson said that UK funding schemes in their current form wouldn’t substitute EU schemes, especially for some fields such as arts, humanities and social sciences, which are currently just reached by EU funding.
Student and staff mobility was presented as a priority by both in view of the upcoming immigration white paper.
“Our ability to compete for international funding relies on us being able to retain outstanding researchers,” explained Stern.
While some positive signs have been observed in regards to EU citizens in the UK (such as the inclusion of academic staff on the pilot settled status scheme), she added, there are fewer guarantees for UK staff temporarily abroad.
Barriers should be kept “as low as possible” for short-term mobility as well, she urged, also in light of UUKi’s goal to double the number of UK students spending a period abroad during their university degree.
She also outlined the risks of “cutting and pasting” current regulations applying to non-EU citizens to EU citizens, mentioning the minimum salary threshold of £30,000 for a Tier2 visa which would leave out technical university staff.
She said both the Tier2 and Tier4 should be reviewed to make the UK a more appealing destination.
“If you compare our system with the systems in place in other countries – we are just not that attractive,” she said.
“We have an opportunity to make ourselves more attractive now.”
Thompson added that academics’ and students’ mobility is a priority for Wellcome as well, explaining that sometimes there are problems for non-EEA researchers to travel to the UK for conferences.
“Free movement has served research incredibly well,” she said. “If we get a no deal that would end very abruptly.”