Post-Brexit plan to create elite UK research funder takes shape

Report recommends forming ‘British ERC’ if the United Kingdom drops out of European Union funding programmes.
Science, Research and Innovation and Interim Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth Chris Skidmore.

UK science minister Chris Skidmore commissioned an independent report on how the country’s research landscape might change after Brexit.Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty

The United Kingdom should boost funding for basic research and create an equivalent of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) if it doesn’t remain part of the European Union’s flagship research-funding programme after it leaves the bloc.

That’s the conclusion of a independent review that looked at how UK science could adapt and collaborate internationally after Brexit — now scheduled for 31 January 2020 — which many researchers fear will have devastating effects on research.

UK researchers have long been successful in EU research programmes, and the country’s government has repeatedly said that after Brexit, it hopes to become an associate member of Horizon Europe, a funding programme that is likely to be worth around €100 billion (US$110 billion) and begins in 2021. But the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU — and Horizon Europe — remain uncertain.

The report on possible alternative arrangements, published on 5 November and commissioned in March by UK science minister Chris Skidmore, says that if the country does not ‘associate’ to Horizon Europe, which would give it a similar status to EU members in applying for money, the government should replace lost EU research and development funding at its current level. That amounts to around £1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) a year, says the report, which was authored by Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute in London, and Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London (UCL).

Importantly, this should include ‘transition’ funding to protect existing research projects and scientific infrastructure that have been built up through EU participation, says Reid. “Many people have built their careers on EU funding,” he says. If that is curtailed, “it’s a really good use of public money to provide these people with support while they adapt to new ways of working, and not just to dump them”.

New horizon

In the event that the United Kingdom does not become part of Horizon Europe, Reid and Smith propose the creation of a flagship programme of research fellowships similar to the ERC — which is widely hailed as a successful model for funding basic research. The council would award long and large grants to exceptional researchers, and be overseen by panel of prestigious international scientists. “We thought the ERC was a really elegant funding scheme,” says Reid. The UK version would make “the grants bigger, the duration longer, and the peer review more rigorous”, he adds.

Other recommendations include boosting basic research and creating a suite of fellowships and postgraduate programmes designed to attract talented researchers from around the world. The report also suggests making two funding streams to “capture fast-moving and unexpected opportunities”, one of which would be open to any discipline and allow free-form projects. Through the latter, UK researchers could still get funding to collaborate with EU partners, says Reid.

In response to the review, Skidmore said that the government would consider the independent advice and that the work would inform its thinking.

The report also acknowledges that many of the researchers it consulted stressed that remaining part of Horizon Europe, with its wealth of intangible benefits as well as cash, remained the best outcome. John Hardy, a neuroscientist at UCL, said the report “reminds me of the TV show about how to prepare to survive nuclear war”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03444-0

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