UK Research Funding and Culture, post Brexit

Brexit GraphicI think it’s fair to say that the June 23 Referendum result took the academic community by surprise. Arguably, even many outside the academy were surprised by it and even remorseful of this result.  This included former Prime Minister David Cameron who weeks before the vote smugly warned those from the Leave campaign that they would have to accept the results if Britain voted to remain, and Nigel Farage who wasn’t optimistic as polls closed on the evening of the 23rd. However, the academic research community was particularly winded by the results, as outside of Scotland it was the larger urban centres and the homes to our institutes of higher education (HE) that voted overwhelmingly to remain.

UK arts and culture, together with the HE sector have all benefited tremendously from our relationship with the EU. The freedom of movement for artists, students, HE staff, and researchers has made the whole of Europe a crucible of cultural and scientific creativity, promoting the free exchange of ideas. This freedom of movement has been a key ingredient in helping establish the collaborative research networks that have propelled Europe to its place as a hub for scientific exploration and innovation according to a recent UNESCO report.

The phrase ‘punching above its weight’ gets used often when speaking about the UK’s return on investment into EU research funding structures, and the UK’s overall position in global higher education and research in relation to its population size and GDP. In the previous European research and development funding framework programme (FP7 – between 2007 and 2013) the UK contributed €5.4bn and received €8.8bn in funds; coming second only to Germany. The UK ranked first, receiving 22.4% of research funding allocated to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the European Research Council (ERC) funding. For context, this figure represented 3% of the UK’s total R&D expenditure for that period, or approximately 27% of the funds received from UK research councils. Five of our HEIs ranked in the top 10 of overall participation within the HE sector, and four of our HEIs ranked in the top 10 for ERC Grants. In the current European funding framework, Horizon 2020, the UK has managed to keep its edge, coming up on top in terms of the number of projects awarded.

In the lead-up to the Referendum, the British Council commissioned a set of essays from artists, historians, writers, scientists, communicators, leaders and academics, titled The Morning After, which described the importance of Europe to its cultural and science sectors. Starting with a piece from Martin Roth, the Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the collection is realistic, visceral, and optimistic,

“As a formal union, the EU may not have lived up to expectations. But as a cultural union, Europe is unrivalled. The United Kingdom – and London – is the beating heart of this Europe that I know and love. London simply could not be London without the constant exchange of people, art and ideas that flows across the continent.”

It champions the collaborative spirit in Europe from many perspectives, while also exploring some of more xenophobic rhetoric involved in the nationalist sentiment that has become increasingly reported in the media, especially in the final days leading up to and following the June 23rd vote. Bidisha, a broadcaster and journalist wrote,

“Britain has a certain amount of repair work to do in terms of its cultural relations. We must show that we are not fatally mired in fond, monoracial memories of greatness which begin with Beowulf and end with Virginia Woolf, taking in William the Conqueror and William Morris along the way. We must show that we are not culturally arrogant philistines who only want to play in the great communal sandpit if we can be the leader and call the shots or be favoured by the powerful players – or only play with those who are exactly like ourselves.”

It is this last sentiment and its increasing prevalence in media headlines that is most concerning, and it seems there has had a knock-on effect in the HE sector: some academics have threatened to leave the UK due to this rising tide of xenophobia. Reports are also starting to emerge of growing anxieties amongst EU students and academic staff in the UK, as the home office has not yet provided much reassurance to current and future students regarding their continued welcome.  Organisations like Universities UK and The Russell Group have issued statements assuaging concerns of those in or due to arrive in the UK that things will continue as usual, and for the time being the UK will continue to participate in programmes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus.  However, anecdotal reports of being treated differently by European partners and peer reviewers have already emerged, and a confidential survey of Russell Group Universities by The Guardian “found cases of British academics being asked to leave EU-funded projects or to step down from leadership roles because they are considered a financial liability”, suggesting that irrespective of the lack of any actual change, that UK researchers are being treated with a certain uneasiness.

It could be that this wave of anxiety is fuelled by the current state of uncertaintyArticle 50 has not yet been triggered, and in fact, Parliament is due to debate the issue of a second referendum in September. So despite pressure from EU countries for the UK to make up its mind, we remain in our post-referendum limbo.  Theresa May, the only Tory candidate left standing to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister following his resignation, has assured that a Brexit is an inevitable future.

Beyond that, for the time being, very little else seems certain. The post-Brexit picture of research funding painted by Dr Mike Galsworthy, the Programme Director of Scientists for the EU, is not a glorious one. Using both Norway and Switzerland as case studies for how Britain might access European funding in the future still rely greatly on a certain freedom of movement; a huge sticking point for the government who will negotiate our future with the single market. In addition, as non-EU countries, they have varying access to Horizon 2020 funding, but they have no say in decisions of EU funding priorities. 

As a final thought, which was underscored by a sentiment in The Morning After essay from Johannes Ebert, there is a clear disconnect that has emerged between the majorities who reside in the blue and yellow patches in the UK.  “Perhaps the referendum will turn out to be the event that gives rise to important discussions […] not only in the UK but throughout Europe!”  Perhaps, in times to come, these discussions will provide the framework for greater harmony between the people who live in those patches of blue and yellow as well as a more stable understanding between the UK and the EU.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of QMUL or the CAPD.  I have endeavoured to present facts from as comprehensive a group of sources as possible, but welcome any comment or contrasting opinions.  


About ruipiresmartins

I'm a researcher developer for postdocs and research staff at Queen Mary University of London. Prior to that, I was an EMBO Fellow at the Gurdon Institute (University of Cambridge), studying Embryonic development and a PDRA in the Institute of Bioengineering (QMUL) studying nuclear and chromatin architecture in embryonic stem cells.
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