Education and Skills

Brexit must not put UK university research at risk

A researcher.

If the UK leaves the EU on 31 October, there are no guarantees it will be able to access €100 billion of European funding.

Michael Arthur
President and provost, University College London
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UK universities are at the forefront of some of the greatest discoveries and innovations shaping our world today. They are home to extraordinary academics from around the world who are carrying out research spanning areas from communications technology and space to sustainable cities and education.

These breakthroughs often come about as a result of close international collaborations. For example, UCL researchers are currently working with global institutions on projects to make climate change predictions cheaper and more widely accessible, help patients recovering from strokes, and remove pollution from contaminated water. In the UK, the Dementia Research Institute aims to tackle an ever-growing health problem that is predicted to affect a million people in Britain by 2020 and will cost our country more than £1 trillion over the next four decades.

Yet the UK’s ability to lead and participate in future international collaborations is currently under threat. If Britain crashes out of Europe on 31 October this year without a deal, there is currently no guarantee that the UK will be able to access Europe’s new €100 billion Horizon Europe research fund.

Although there does still seem to be the political will to negotiate a science deal, this will be harder after Britain becomes a “third country”, no matter who is prime minister. And with loss of trust on each side, a gap between the end of Horizon 2020 (the current EU research framework) and any new agreed deal is inevitable. UK science will lose out.

The impact is already being felt. Analysis carried out by UCL of the latest EU research funding data found a large drop in Russell Group universities running big European research collaborations – numbers are down from 50 a year in 2016 to only 20 in 2018. Although we are still participating in European networks, we are leading less. There is anecdotal evidence of UK universities being asked to step back from big projects. Our scientists are in danger of being locked out of Horizon Europe with damaging consequences for global research, the UK’s ability to attract the best talent, and for the economy.

Against this backdrop, UK universities have to speak out and be even more global in our outlook. UCL has already stepped up its collaboration with partners since the Brexit referendum by consolidating existing partnerships in Europe, launching our new Cities Partnerships Programme in Rome and Paris, and increasing our advocacy and engagement around the world.

This week, an international alliance of more than 40 university presidents from research-intensive institutions in G7 countries, as well as from across Asia, Africa and Latin America, will gather in Paris for the inaugural meeting of the U7 Alliance. Over two days, the U7 will agree concrete actions and collective commitments to address pressing global challenges including climate change and inequality.

By collaborating on a shared mission, these universities can harness their collective knowledge and influence around the world – bringing together research, expertise and best practices. Internationalism is a critical part of global education, with free movement of researchers and ideas essential to this mission.

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Five leading UK universities are founder members of the U7, including UCL. We have an opportunity there to demonstrate that the UK remains a world-leading hub for scientific research and innovation. If we allow Brexit to stall progress in global research, it will have profound consequences for all of us.

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