When it comes to Brexit, many U.K. researchers are hoping the whole thing will eventually be canceled—or that they will at least still be able to tap into EU funding through some sort of deal. Today, an eagerly awaited external report, commissioned by the government, lays out research priorities and options if those relationships with Europe are severed. It calls for increased spending on R&D nationwide, a new research fellowship program, and larger chunks of money for universities to quickly target research opportunities.
In March, the U.K. science minister, Chris Skidmore, asked for independent advice about how the government should bolster the nation’s R&D after its departure from the European Union, now scheduled for 31 January 2020. The key question: what to do if the United Kingdom decides not to participate, or “associate,” in the European Union’s main funding program, called Horizon 2020. It provides about £1.5 billion to U.K. researchers each year, and the grants make up about 11% of research funding for top U.K. research universities. They also attract talent from Europe and create vital international collaborations.
The new report, by Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute in London, and Graeme Reid, a science policy expert at University College London, sketches out a strategy. (Scientists have urged the government to keep close ties to Horizon 2020, and its successor, Horizon Europe, and ministers have said they will consider participation, if it offers value for money.)
A top priority, according to the report, should be for the government to pursue an R&D target of at least 2.4% of gross domestic product, a 10-year goal that the government established in 2017. The path to reach it is already clear to government ministers, of course—R&D advocates have listed the steps many times. But the report adds a specific suggestion for spending some of this R&D money: Create a “flagship programme of research fellowships, offering large awards over long periods of time for exceptional researchers in all disciplines.” Four-year grants should be available, and renewable two or three times, the report suggests. The recommendation sounds more ambitious than Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships and European Research Council grants, EU funding programs that would be off limits after Brexit even if the United Kingdom does participate in Horizon 2020.
The report points out that the politics of research funding will likely change after Brexit. If the United Kingdom isn’t getting research funding from Brussels, but from its own treasury, then the government may want this funding to reflect domestic political priorities. The report says that one priority might be to spread research funding more evenly across the country; not just in the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford, and Cambridge, which dominate in attracting EU research funds. One way that Smith and Reid suggest the government could cultivate good science across the country is by creating research centers, each about as big as a medium-size university, that focus on grand challenges such as reaching a zero-carbon economy.
Another focus, post-Brexit, should be quick responses to new research opportunities, the report says. Universities should get an increase in unrestricted block grants from the government, a type of funding that has lagged over the past decade. A boost would allow scientists to more easily and quickly strike up collaborations, without having to apply for a project-specific grant from the government. Government ministers should likewise have a pot of money for creating international partnerships. The report doesn’t specify how big these should be.
Nor does the report answer the question of what agency should give out funds that would replace the money from Brussels. Smith and Reid write that it’s too soon to say whether a new funding agency would be needed to help disperse grants. They do caution that adding another £1 billion or more could stretch the capacity of UK Research and Innovation, which was only created in 2018. Another option might be to create an entirely new funding agency to specialize in international partnerships.
The looming question is what’s next with Brexit. Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reached a revised withdrawal agreement with the European Union, but Parliament remained deadlocked and did not approve it. A general election is scheduled for 12 December, and Johnson is campaigning to get a majority government that could break the logjam.