UK R&D post-Brexit: How to live up to the title of ‘science superpower’

06 Oct 2020 | News

Cheaper visas and new funds are among the ideas suggested by leading charity Wellcome Trust to shore up research in the years ahead - as ties with the EU are weakened

UK Brexit research

The UK should slash the cost of visas for foreign researchers, create new funding structures for international research collaborations and sign up to Horizon Europe if it is to live up to the government’s promise to build a “global Britain” after Brexit, says a new report by the biomedical research charity, Wellcome Trust.

For global Britain to become a reality, “the UK will need funding to support new bilateral or multilateral deals,” says the report, which includes interviews with 50 leading scientists in the UK and abroad.

At the same time, the UK needs to maintain its strong research ties with Europe. “One of the most research-intensive areas of the world is on the UK’s doorstep,” the report says. The continent, including the UK, generates a third of the world’s scientific publications with just 7 per cent of the global population.

“Any country that aims to be a science superpower must have an effective partnership with the EU, due to its scientific strength and density of talent,” the report says.

The UK will lose its “formal influencing role” on EU research programmes at the end of the Brexit transition period in December. Still, the government should “make every effort to secure full association to Horizon Europe, as the first step in building research relationships around the world.”

EU member states will compete within the 2021-2027 Horizon Europe programme to win back more than they have paid in. This is likely to make it difficult to sustain current levels of UK cooperation with EU partners, should the UK not associate to Horizon Europe, the report says.

“If Irish researchers want to keep working with the UK through a new bilateral agreement we would have to find maybe an additional €150 million more, on top of the additional money we need to pay into the EU because the UK left,” Mark Ferguson, chief scientific adviser to the Irish government, says.

“My finance minister is going to say ‘Go win more back under Horizon Europe. Go work with Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries’. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, I would love to do it, but the numbers just don’t add up,” Ferguson says.

Formal research collaboration with the EU is “not in tension” with developing new relationships around the world, the report argues.

But at a time when some are “questioning the role of multilateral organisations”, the UK will have to “work hard and strategically” to build a “coalition of the willing” that supports its priorities.

To keep on top of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, the UK should host a forum on global regulation, “to make progress on determining shared norms and standards”.

The government should also establish an “agility fund” to back different types of “top-down” international research projects, the report says.

This fund would allow for spontaneity and flexibility in backing projects outside the UK, says Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute, and president elect of the Royal Society, who is interviewed in the report.

“UK funding structures currently don’t leave us with much agility on the global stage. If we need to re-define the position of the UK through bilateral and multilateral arrangements, we need structures that allow us to do this,” Smith says.

Slash visa cost

Among other recommendations, the report says that visas for researchers and their teams coming to the UK should be slashed.

“There is a significant difference in visa costs paid by researchers coming to the UK compared with other countries,” the report says.

From October, a so-called immigration health surcharge paid by people coming to the UK will increase to £624 a year, meaning an upfront cost of more than £13,000 for a family of four on a five-year global talent visa. In contrast, the French talent visa is roughly £1,000 for the same family.

“For the global talent visa to be a globally competitive offer for researchers, and particularly for those early on in their careers, this must be revisited as a priority,” the report says.

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