One of the areas of possible economic shock following the win for the Leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s EU membership on 23rd June, is the loss of the EU’s stalwart commitment to funding high level collaborative academic research in the sciences and in environmental issues.
The first thing to emphasise is that all academic institutions are carrying on as normal, as there can be no clear answers for the time being on the volume and sources of future funding of such research. This will take time to establish and will be a part of the long and complex agenda of departure.
This is a two part process, with the actual formal ‘divorce’ a more or less templated two year formal procedure triggered by the UK in activating Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.
The second – and entirely separate – part of the divorce is the slow and prolonged process of the framing and bipartite acceptance of the specifics of future relationships between the UK and the EU over a very wide spectrum of mutual and individual interest.
This covers everything from intelligence and defence, to trading agreements, to collaborative funding of developments of shared significance, to freedom of movement, to the position of expats, to travel… The minutiae of every one of such matters will make the process of formal agreement inevitably slow.
Ten years on, Switzerland was judged to be no more than halfway through the welter of agreements to be made – and it withdrew its application days before the UK voted.
In the instance on which this article is focused, a major concern is whether, what and how some interim guarantee of available funding sources – wherever they are – of crucial collaborative research between European [as opposed to solely EU] academic institutions can be put in place until all of the necessary detail to support future work is established.
Some indicative information on the situation in terms of the Scottish Association for Marine Science [SAMS] – the Argyll-based constituent of the University of the Highlands and Islands that is arguably the jewel in the academic crown of that institution – is that during the 2014-15 financial year, SAMS’ research income from the EU was £920,000. In context, its total research income for that year was £6.675 million. Of this, the EU contribution of £920,000 was 13.8%, with the almost £3m from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council [NERC] accounting for 45%.
There will undoubtedly be huge changes to the way UK science is funded post-Brexit, so it cannot be said that SAMS research income would be down by £920,000 per annum.
As of now, SAMS has 8 EU collaborative research projects which end after 2018.
In terms of personnel, there are currently 21 staff members at SAMS from EU countries other than the UK.
Come September 2016, SAMS expects to have up to 20 EU undergraduate students, plus around 11 postgraduate researchers from EU nations.
Professor Nick Owens, Director of SAMS, has issued an interim statement on the post-Brexit scenario for his institution, a balanced and objective assessment whose detail will only become known as the UK membership of the EU slowly unravels.
Professor Owens says: ‘The EU Referendum result has told us that the UK no longer wishes to be part of the European Union, a unique partnership that has allowed us to contribute greatly to our understanding of the marine environment.
‘These are very early days in the aftermath of this very significant decision but whatever happens during the negotiations to come it is likely there will be implications for academic and research organisations, including SAMS; however, we have no idea what these might be.
‘SAMS is, and always will be, an internationally-facing organisation and we are inherently a stable organisation with a very strong international reputation.
‘We performed excellently in the Research Excellence Framework, which rates the quality of academic research undertaken, we recruit talented students from around the world and we have many good partnerships with industry, government and other research organisations. All these give us significant resilience in the face of change.
‘Our immediate priority will be to maintain our high standards in research and to further develop partnerships across Europe.
‘As far as our EU students are concerned, it is particularly important to note that, as things currently stand, there will be no change for existing and future EU students arriving in 2016/17 and 2017/18 for the duration of their studies. There is also no immediate risk to SAMS’ EU funding for research, nor are there any changes to non-EU students and research funding.
‘We value hugely the work of our European staff and students who, together with our UK and international staff and students, make SAMS the unique and wonderful place it is.
‘Now that the referendum is over, it is our responsibility to work with governments and other bodies, to ensure a smooth and successful transition to a productive future for SAMS and all of our students and staff.
‘As a member of the European Union, the UK made great strides in marine science and environmental issues; however, the UK has always been a leading nation for scientific research and it is important this momentum is maintained, regardless of the political landscape. SAMS is well placed to ensure this happens.’