British universities set up European outposts as Brexit looms

Establishing partner institutions in Europe might allow UK researchers to keep full access to EU funds.

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Could British universities maintain access to EU research funds even with a no-deal Brexit?Credit: Simon Dawson/Reuters

Some of Britain’s leading research institutions are establishing alliances with counterparts in other European countries — a move that might allow them to keep drawing on the European Union’s science funds even in the case of a 'no-deal' divorce from the bloc, a more extreme form that Brexit could take.

To access the €100 billion (US$115 billion) in research funding that the EU proposes to make available for 2021–27, scientists must be based at host institutions that are legal entities in the EU or associated countries.

This might soon cease to be true for UK universities, many of which stand to lose tens of millions of euros that they get from EU funds (see 'High stakes for Brexit') — depending on what terms the United Kingdom exits the EU, a matter that is currently the focus of intense negotiations.

Source: European Commission

“In principle, UK entities might remain eligible for funding under EU criteria if they have a legal presence in an EU member country,” says Jan Palmowski, director of the Brussels-based Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

For example, recipients of grants from the European Research Council must spend at least 50% of their time at a host institute in the EU or associated country. So, continental outposts could help UK researchers continue to access European Research Council grants, even if their country ceases to officially take part in EU research programmes.

Palmowski says that stable alliances with continental partners might also help UK universities to safeguard EU-funded research collaborations and student exchanges.

The idea that fruitful research relations built over decades might go to pieces is “dismaying and heartbreaking”, says James Conroy, vice-principal for internationalization at the University of Glasgow, which hopes to establish such partnerships.

Oxford and Berlin

Of several alliances launched in recent months, a partnership between the University of Oxford and four institutions in Berlin is so far the most comprehensive. Established at the end of 2017, the Oxford–Berlin Research Partnership is mainly financed by the Berlin state government and private sponsors.

This year, the alliance launched a pilot call for proposals and made €10,000–30,000 available in seed grants, with the intention of raising additional third-party funding. Any faculty members of the five institutes can apply. A second call is to be announced next month.

Crucially, the partnership will serve as Oxford’s legal entity in Germany and will provide an administrative office at the university clinic Charité in Berlin for visiting researchers. That means, at least in theory, that some Oxford-based researchers might be able to access EU funding. Berlin also promised to provide space for visiting Oxford scholars in its Natural History Museum.

The likely cost of running the partnership will be around €800,000 a year, says Alastair Buchan, a pro-vice chancellor and head of Brexit strategy at Oxford University and director of Oxford’s Berlin office. And he estimates that this will further enable many millions of euros of research projects and activity.

“We’re finally doing what we should have done since the day the UK joined the EU in 1973,” says Buchan. “We took the freedom to collaborate without restrictions for granted . It was only when the Brexit referendum came along that we began to realize that we must insure against the future.”

Oxford and Berlin will both benefit from the partnership, says Steffen Krach, state secretary for higher education and research in the Berlin state government.

“Obviously, future access to EU funding for joint research is part of the motivation for Oxford to set up shop here, and quite legitimately so,” he says. “But we can also learn a lot from Oxford and their success in scouting international talent. Science in Berlin will doubtless benefit in terms of research output and reputation from lively exchange with one of the best universities in the world.”

Exactly how much funding will ultimately be available, and how many researchers will be involved in exchanges, has not yet been disclosed.

Academic alliances

A similar partnership involving regular exchanges of research staff and jointly-funded research projects is being agreed by the University of Cambridge and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Another, called the transCampus initiative, aims to stimulate student exchange and research collaboration between King’s College London and the Technical University of Dresden.

A host of other partnerships are at various stages of development. The University of Warwick, UK, is considering expanding into France, following a 2017 call from the University of Paris Seine for proposals from British universities to get involved in creating an international campus in Paris.

Earlier this year, Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK, signed a partnership agreement with Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences; and the University of Glasgow has teamed up with the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany.

The University of Glasgow had plans to set up and expand European partnerships before the Brexit vote, says Conroy. But the unexpected outcome of the June 2016 referendum, he says, increased the urgency of strengthening continental alliances in research and education.

And last month, Imperial College London announced an expansion of its long-standing research-and-education partnership with the Technical University of Munich in Germany. A major goal of the deal is greater cooperation in artificial intelligence, robotics, digital medicine and bioengineering, including joint appointments of group leaders and more exchanges of scientists at all career levels.

“We’re naturally interested in any mechanism that allows us to continue fruitful collaborations we have established with European partners over the decades,” says Maggie Dallman, vice-president of Imperial College.

EU funding is one way of easing collaboration, but any mechanism to keep the doors open in science must be open and transparent, says Dallman. “We are not seeking to find opaque backdoor routes to getting European funding,” she says. “It’s ultimately all about doing more research of a higher quality with an outstanding partner.”

Conroy says: “Brexit will not leave UK universities unaffected, but we managed to live through turmoil before.” He adds: “No matter how difficult the political crisis is, we will see to it that our faculty and students, and society at large, continue to get the best possible scholarship and science.”

Nature 562, 467-468 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07121-6

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