Reasons to be cheerful

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Judging by my Twitter feed (undoubtedly a reliable source), the UK research community has responded to the vote to leave the EU with a collective emotional and economic meltdown. 

The prevailing sentiment has been that the vote triggered an instant loss of an international community of researchers and millions in research funding. This British pessimism has been reinforced by stories of doom, with the stock market 'crashing' (now mostly recovered) and the pound 'plunging' (boosting UK exports – unlike in Japan, where recovery is being stalled by the rising Yen).

There will be turbulence, but it is possible that the unpleasantness of Brexit is survivable for British research and scholarly publishing, and might even be advantageous.
UK research does, of course, receive a great deal of funding from the EU. There have been speculations about future funding, with headlines claiming that the UK will lose £1 billion per year – sometimes qualified, in smaller type, with acknowledgements that this loss has not yet happened, may not happen, is a variable figure, and could be replaced by UK funding.

UK researchers get an average about £0.8 billion per year from the European Research Council (ERC) and other EU sources. But this is not free money – it comes from contributions by taxpayers across the EU (including the UK) and is re-distributed. This pot of gold has not disappeared, as the UK will continue to be an EU member for at least two years. Neither will the money vanish should Brexit actually occur; each year the UK pays £13 billion into the EU, and gets about £4.5 billion back. The money currently being won from the EU could be replaced by UK-specific funding, effectively taken out of the £13 billion saving.

The transition may be uncomfortable. There are reports of researchers in Europe being reluctant to include UK elements in ERC proposals, for fear of reducing the chances of a successful bid. This is understandable, but surely a breach of the rules the ERC applies in evaluating bids (while the UK remains in the EU). It is also contrary to the spirit of European collaboration. There is a fear that free movement of researchers and those working in scholarly publishing might be curtailed – yet there are no short-term changes, and a strong likelihood that EU academics will be largely unaffected by a positively-negotiated Brexit.

As soon as someone talks of divorce, emotions run high and the 'quitter' is viewed with suspicion, but the UK research and publishing community needs to make it clear that nothing has changed yet. 

Steps to calm nerves would include the UK Government reaffirming the pledge by Brexit campaigners to continue to fund EU programmes until 2020, a statement from the ERC that it will resist bias against UK-connected bids, and a move by the whole EU research community (including the UK) to commit to collaboration. The UK could make overtures about continuing to fund the ERC, just as the UK participates freely in non-EU programmes such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and CERN.

The UK Government and research community could also initiate a re-evaluation of how research is funded. The UK has been disproportionately successful in winning EU money, which could be viewed as a proud achievement based on excellence, or an unfair raid on a common pool of funding. This dependency on the EU has also allowed the UK to give less attention to other sources of funding. As the Digital Science paper says, 'EU funds have been used to prop up and cover systemic issues'. These failings have come into sharper focus with the prospect of Brexit.
The question is whether the UK has the political will to source funding at the necessary level and ensure that UK & EU researchers continue to have the freedom to travel and collaborate. The research community needs to lobby ministers with strong positive arguments, not hyperbole and insults.

As Brexit looms, we should remember that:

  • The EU is not the UK – the UK research community, government, commercial sector and other funders can work to create new research funding and employment frameworks, that provide for UK researchers and facilitate opportunities for collaboration with foreign colleagues, not just from the EU but world-wide;
  • The EU is not Europe – there are already European institutions that work extremely well without being subsidiaries of the EU, and the UK can continue to participate in these, and potentially expand the list, helping to liberate international academia from political constructs, and increasing alignment with real research communities and goals;
  • The EU is not the world – UK research and publishing can use Brexit to demonstrate a real benefit from looking outward and embracing the global research community, including giants like China and the USA, and the developing world, rather than simply looking inward toward a Europeans-only club, on which the UK has become increasingly dependent.

The UK referendum result and the impending Brexit have created understandable concern and uncertainty, but it does not have to be a catastrophe, if handled actively and positively.

Mark Carden is the Chairman of the Researcher to Reader Conference, which takes place in London each February