Some implications of Brexit for UK research

There is no doubt that leaving the European Union will bring implications for the UK research system. Like many other sectors, UK research relies on talented people from elsewhere in the EU, and EU funding makes a significant contribution.

The contribution of EU funding, however, goes beyond the financial. In this post I will argue that the nature of the research supported, and especially the research networks that are nurtured, is vitally important.

There is building evidence that all research is internationally networked, and to an increasing extent. For example, earlier this year Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney published a report that demonstrates the extent to which UK research is international. This analysis showed that more than 50% of UK-authored journal articles have at least one non-UK author. This has increased from just 10% in 1981. This increasing international collaboration has been strongly influenced by the research funding interventions of the European Union. As Adams and Gurney say:

Growth in international research collaboration is almost certainly enhanced by the incentives provided by European Framework Programmes, which have significantly expanded UK research opportunities. Co-authors from EU countries have increased from 43% in 1981 to include more than 60% of the UK’s international co-authors after 2011.

Although international collaboration has increased substantially, the UK’s research collaboration with Europe has increased at a faster rate than with other partners and now covers more than half of all collaborative papers. Most of these papers are bilateral collaborations.

Further evidence on the role of the EU in building research networks comes from detailed analysis (pdf) carried out by Jarno Hoekman, Thomas Scherngell, Koen Frenken and Robert Tijssen, published in 2013. These authors looked at the development of research networks between regions within Europe, using co-authorship as an indicator of research collaborations, both before and after Framework Programme 6 (FP6). The analysis reveals two important findings.

First, the EU funding intervention leads to new partnerships. Funding partnerships between regions in FP6 were not more prevalent when there were established relationships as evidenced by co-authorship networks before the funding. Secondly, the FP6 funding resulted in an increased relationship between regions that received funding. There was more co-authorship after the funding, and, while the increase was greater between partners with lower previous collaboration, it applied generally.

The paper also contains some interesting background information on co-authorship networks. As the map below shows, there are several important hubs in the European research network, and one of them is focussed on the UK.

So, there is evidence that EU networks are an established component of the system, and that they deliver research benefits in the form of co-authored publications. Do these networks also generate broader impacts beyond the research sphere? Some insight into this question can be gleaned from examining the case studies of research impact submitted to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). A search for a range of terms indicative of EU funding sources identifies a set of 509 case studies, some 8% of the total submitted. This is likely to be an underestimate of the impact from EU funding, as not all case studies will have mentioned a funding source and other excellent examples of impact may not even have been submitted for assessment. The set of 509 does give some sense, though, of the nature and breadth of the impact generated from research partnerships with Europe.

The case studies in the EU funding set span the full range of academic disciplines. There are case studies from all but one of the 36 Units of Assessment in the REF, and around three quarters of the fields of research are represented in the underpinning research for these case studies. The case studies also cover the full range of types of impact identified by text mining of the case studies. Case studies of impact relating to regional innovation and mobile technologies are particularly highly represented in the set.

From this evidence and analysis, it is clear that the EU's research interventions have created deep and productive research networks across the continent. Preserving these networks will bring benefits to both the UK and our partners, so as we move towards Brexit this will be an important research policy priority. This might be achieved through a number of mechanisms. As part of the new relationship between the UK and the EU perhaps we can remain (through a continued financial contribution) part of EU funding. Alternatively, we could establish a series of bilateral funding arrangements between key European partner countries that allow straightforward collaborative arrangements to be set up. Or, perhaps there is the potential to establish new multilateral research funding arrangements that operate outside the structures and membership of the European Union. There are pros, cons and consequences of all these options, but I think it is clear that if we do nothing there is a risk we might lose important research networks that currently contribute to the success of UK research.