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Ensuring Britain’s universities remain the best in the world

Philip Hunt on why the loss of Horizon funding could have a devastating impact on our higher education sector’s research capabilities and essential collaboration with European universities

One of the unintended consequences of Brexit is the threat to high level investment in our universities. The UK’s higher education institutions excel at producing world-class research. According to recent research from Universities UK, we accounted for 15% of the world’s most highly-cited articles - despite representing only 4.7% of researchers and a small global share of research investment.

A major part of this success has been attracting more than £1bn research income from overseas each year – with £840m coming from the EU alone in 2015/16, largely thanks to the Horizon 2020 programme.

Horizon 2020 is the biggest ever EU Research and Innovation programme, with nearly €80bn of funding available over seven years from 2014 to 2020. It aims to ensure Europe produces world-class science, remove barriers to innovation and drive economic growth.

Open to businesses, charities and universities, the UKs higher education sector has done very well out of Horizon 2020 and its predecessors. Since 2014, we have been the second most successful country in terms of funding received, with around 15% of the resources allocated. Indeed, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial and Oxford are the top four recipients to date. Other universities including Edinburgh, Manchester, Southampton and Birmingham have also done well.

This has generated considerable work with partners in other countries – an increasingly important factor in successful research outcomes. Recent analysis (commissioned by the UK government) reveals that internationally co-authored publications continue to have a higher citation impact than those with institutional or national co-authors

But this is now at risk. UK researchers will remain fully eligible for Horizon 2020 support for at least the next 17 months, and Ministers have given a cast-iron guarantee to pay out any funding applied for or awarded before we leave the EU. Universities however, need to know how the Treasury underwrite will work if there is no deal on the future eligibility of such funding, post-Brexit.

The sector also needs to know the government's longer-term intentions for the successor programme to Horizon 2020, due to start in 2021. This is extremely problematic for any academic currently planning to submit an application.

The government’s position on Horizon 2020 is disappointingly non-committal. Despite positive messages from the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House and Florence speeches, and in the Science and Innovation discussion paper, there has been no further clarification of the UK’s future status. Ministers currently maintain they can’t say what schemes might replace them; and that they will be discussed as part of the negotiations.

There is a real worry that the government has yet to get a grip with this issue. The loss of Horizon funding could have a devastating impact on our higher education sector’s research capabilities and essential collaboration with European universities.

That we have so many of top global institutions in UK is down to the high quality of research that takes place in our country, and we can ill afford to let this go. That is why Labour has tabled a frontbench amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill on the need to remain a member of the Horizon 2020 programme, or at least have equivalent participatory relations.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s Education team in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 21st February 2018

This article first appeared on The Independent 'Indy Voices' blog

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