The vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has warned that UK universities could face a “brain drain” due to lack of access to EU funding.
Professor Stephen J Toope, who is stepping down at the end of this year, said in a lecture at Homerton College that “for the first time there is the very real and hugely worrying prospect of a brain drain, as colleagues with large European collaborations and significant European grants talk about leaving the UK”.
The UK had been expected to become an associate member of the Horizon Europe funding programme, but recent disputes between the UK and the EU over the UK’s decision to break the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol have thrown the agreement into doubt.
UK academia losing out
The failure to reach an agreement has been widely condemned by the academic community. An editorial in the prestigious scientific journal Nature called the failure to reach an agreement “totally unnecessary”, while, in a letter on behalf of Universities UK, Professor Paul Boyle, the vice-chancellor of Swansea University, wrote that a failure to secure associate membership of Horizon Europe “would be a lose-lose for health, wealth and wellbeing and would do a disservice to future generations in Europe and beyond”.
As well as affecting future grant funding, the failure to ratify the UK’s membership would lead to the loss of £250mn already allocated to UK researchers by the European Research Council.
Many researchers and projects are reportedly considering moving to Europe in order to retain access to the funding pot, and the ongoing uncertainty is already having a significant negative effect on UK-based projects. Professor Toope described how “two weeks ago a Cambridge astrophysicist had to step down from the leadership of a pan-European project” due to the ongoing uncertainty and that “European funding has now dried up, too, for Cambridge’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, raising the likelihood of its closure in July”.
“It has taken a few years, but our concerns – about the loss of connectivity, the loss of researcher mobility, the loss of research funding – are now coming to pass”, he continued.
Other senior academics share Toope’s downbeat prognosis. Professor Stephen McNair, former academic chair of the European Joint Programming Initiative on Demography commented:
“We have hugely underestimated Britain’s ‘soft power’ in academic research. A few days before the EU referendum I had dinner in Brussels with fellow researchers from six other European countries. Each had a national perspective on the issues of population ageing in their own country. But all had studied in British Universities, all spoke good English, and all had great respect for the quality of British research. Working together, we were achieving much more than any of us could have done alone.
“After the referendum I feared that these links might be broken. I had hoped that the government’s idea of ‘global Britain’ might mean protecting one of the real leadership roles which we used to hold. It is sad to see that I was wrong.”
Hopes for funding agreement “fading fast”
Professor Toope ended his speech on a more upbeat note, saying:
“Hopes for the UK’s association to the Horizon Europe framework programme are fading fast. But I remain hopeful that the UK Government and our European partners will recognise how much our scientific communities need each other.
“And I remain hopeful that we can still agree on some mechanism to ensure that UK researchers can continue to contribute leadership and expertise to European collaborations.”