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UK considers post-Brexit research fund open to world

The government will assess whether a UK grant scheme could help to make up for lost European Union research funding.

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UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore at a press conference.

UK science minister Chris Skidmore.Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

The UK government is considering whether to create an international research fund to fill a gap left by the loss of prestigious European Union funding after Brexit.

Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute in London, will lead a “major” project with the research community to look at establishing such a fund, UK science minister Chris Skidmore told a parliamentary science committee on 5 March. He said that such a fund, if established, would be open to international and British scientists.

The move comes in response to concerns that, after Brexit, UK institutions might not be able to host prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants, which scientists around the world can apply for and take up at an EU institution. Also at risk are fellowships called Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions that give researchers EU money to spend time working in a lab in another country.

Both funding streams are part of the EU’s major research-funding programme, Horizon 2020, which ends in 2020 and is an important source of funding for UK researchers. British scientists won 22% of ERC awards in the decade leading up to 2016, and the Marie Skłodowska Curie scheme draws thousands of overseas researchers to Britain. But it’s not yet clear whether UK researchers will have access to these schemes in the next EU research programme — Horizon Europe, which starts in 2021 — because participation rules for non-EU nations are still being discussed.

Continued partnership

Skidmore said that the UK government’s exploration of an international research fund shows that despite Brexit, Britain “is not leaving its participation with its European scientific partners behind”.

“We have to look responsibly about what we do about ERC, what we do about those other grants that may not be covered, even in association to Horizon Europe,” Skidmore told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Smith’s project is likely to last until the summer, although the exact details are yet to be agreed on, said a spokesperson for Skidmore’s ministry — the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Skidmore said that the assessment would feed into the department’s bid for cash as part of a spending review by the Treasury that informs how money will be allocated across the government in coming years.

Skidmore also updated the Lords on his department’s preparations for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, the possibility that the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without any trade agreements in place. In that scenario, EU research funding to Britain would cease overnight. The UK government has guaranteed that it would replace the money for existing EU research grants, and it is collecting information about who holds these grants.

Skidmore said that around 6,700 of about 8,200 grant recipients in the United Kingdom have registered with an online portal designed to allow UK funders to stand in for the EU if needed. The recipients of the 1,500 unregistered grants are likely to be part of small businesses that belong to consortia receiving funding from Horizon 2020, and they might not be aware of the funding’s source, Skidmore said.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00808-4

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