On 13 April the UK Embassy in Brussels hosted a networking reception to discuss recent European Union (EU) developments that affect UK universities. Organised by Universities UK, the attendance bar for the event was set very high – between
vice-chancellors and senior staff from prestigious UK universities, MEPs, European
Commission representatives, research centers and the Ambassador herself, a
large number of people gathered to share and discuss each other’s perspectives on
British universities’ contribution towards research and innovation in Europe.
This event comes at a time when academia and European institutions such as the European Parliament are rallying against the European Commission’s foreseen 3,5% cut on Horizon 2020 funding for research - amounting to €2.7 billion – in order to finance its new European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI). Representing a change towards debt finance, the academic community and research-minded organisations do not see it as an adequate mechanism for supporting research – nor do they have any guarantees that EFSI will be used to fund research and innovation.
This turn of events is regarded with particular concern by British academia, whose research contributions and achievements are supported by EU funds. Among the most successful EU funded projects one can count the Innovative Medicines Initiative (Fp7 and Horizon 2020 funds), which has been running since 2008, and the Nobel Prize-winning graphene research project at the University of Manchester in 2007 (which was granted a EU start-up grant).
“Having universities engage in the sort of fundamental research that industries can’t really do is extremely important to the future and prosperity of Europe and its citizens”, commented Prof. Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University. “Research and education thrive on diversity and international collaboration. It is worth noting that in the UK, 65% of our top research partners are EU countries, and 15% of academic work force comes from EU countries, as well as 6% of the students.”
“The absolute excellence of UK university research is being challenged by these cuts”, stated Sir Ian Diamond, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen. “To be successful, one must be partnered with the very best. It leads to better science and a better reputation.”
This position was promptly supported by Prof. Paul Boyle, University of Leicester. “Looking at our current success rates, cutting Horizon2020 funds poses an even bigger issue for us. It will have an impact on decisions such whether to compete for those funds”, remarked Prof. Boyle, alluding to the uncertainty surrounding EFSI’s eligibility for research-conducting organisations. “It’s a shame the Commission is willing to make cuts on something that also contributes to their success”.
“Investment and research equals growth. Economic growth is very dependent on the investment we put in into the basic research of today. 1% of the UK population (about 600.000 people), 1600 companies have been formed with university know-how, thus creating 57.000 jobs”, stated Prof. Sir. Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. However, according to Prof. Borysiewicz, the real problem goes deeper than financial cuts – it goes straight into transnational cooperation and mobility issues. “By being together and working together in collaboration, the European Union and the UK have something else that is far more important – bring academics together so we can work together on big global challenges, because none of us can solve these on our own. Whether it is a matter of security, health, issues about culture: if we bring our talents together, we get superb results and we really serve society. The real losses go beyond the funds, is that we would not be able to collaborate in the way that we do today”.
Speaking on the European Commission’s behalf, Prof. Vladimir Sucha emphasized the importance that the EU places on academic research and collaboration with universities.
“The role of universities in society is to become these credible institutions which help society, local and national governments to navigate in the ocean of knowledge. Our roles are very similar, for this is also what we would like to see the Joint Research Centre become - a sort of credibility filter, a knowledge aggregator and an analyst for the European Commission and for member states to implement European legislation. Obviously, we cannot do it on our own”, remarked the Director-General of the Joint Research Centre. “You have a partner and a friend inside the European Commission, you have those who think in a very similar way to those at universities and research institutes. Work with us - we are the bridge to EU policy-making, and we will be very happy to serve as such for you”.
R&I = Science and Technology only?
Let there be no mistake, though – research and innovation amount to more than just science and technology, even if the way the European Commission chooses to advertise its priorities might suggest otherwise.
“Of course science and technology courses have a massive attendance from both British and foreign students, and manage to receive several funds”, remarked Julian Swann, professor at Birbeck University, “But Social Sciences and Arts also contribute towards innovation and research progress on extremely relevant areas such as political sciences, cultural policy and heritage, not to mention cultural diversity - something the EU is so proud of”.
Likewise, Sir Ian Diamond pointed out that EU funding cutbacks “will affect Social Sciences and Arts as much as Science and Technology programmes.”
The big R
With an impeding cut on funds that would create significant obstacles to research mobility and cooperation, the informal topic of conversation among the attendees was none other than the looming referendum on the UK’s EU membership - an event that could create far more significant barriers to transnational collaboration.
“I do think that the current situation and the perspective of an EU referendum showed how pro-European (tonight’s academic attendees) really are”, commented UK Universities’ Nicola Dandridge. Some of the speakers did not let the opportunity pass and stated their views on the referendum promised by David Cameron.
Tackling the elephant in the room during his speech, Prof. Borysiewicz advocated for an active participation in discussion surrounding the referendum. “We need to be prepared to engage in debates that are not going to be easy. If we’re not working together and collaborating, then frankly we’re going nowhere and we’ll be overtaken by the East and by North America. This is a personal statement: the United Kingdom needs Europe, and Europe needs the United Kingdom.”
“We’re extremely good when it comes to research, but we are much better when we do it together”, would later agree Sir Ian Diamond. “I firmly believe Yes will win the referendum, but if not, then I certainly don’t see a positive outcome for us”.
The support for a pro-European UK has already started to have practical expression, with Alistair Jarvis, Director of Communications and External Affairs for UK Universities, pointing out several instances of student groups demonstrating (or scheduling demonstrations) to show their support for EU membership.
Ana Oliveira attended the reception with UK Vice-Chancellors on behalf of OneEurope on 13th of April, in Brussels.