Chronic uncertainty prevails for UK and EU researchers

Sometimes it feels as if there is little else in newspapers in the United Kingdom beyond Brexit, even if very little of what is written can be more than mere speculation at this stage. We do not have certainty on just about any front. That is not helpful for UK research or UK researchers – be those European Union researchers in the UK, or UK researchers anywhere.

We have to live with chronic uncertainty about access to funding and how student numbers from different parts of the world may evolve, causing many a headache for the leadership in the university sector.

We do not know how individuals will weigh up the pros and cons of staying in the UK in what may feel like increasingly hostile environments, versus returning to the safety of their home or other EU countries but possibly having to join groups that don’t fit their research aspirations quite so neatly. It is not an easy landscape to navigate.

As a member of the European Research Council or ERC’s Scientific Council I am very aware both of the importance of the ERC funding for financing excellent science across the EU, but also of the prestige associated with winning such funding.

Those who believe that all will be resolved if the UK government can find some funding to plug the gap in science research budgets if the UK is subsequently excluded from the European programme ignore the latter point. (‘Science’ in this case should be recognised as encompassing not just the natural sciences and engineering, but also the social sciences and arts and humanities).

No existing national scheme within the UK confers anything like the same clout – at promotions and appointments committees, for instance – as an ERC grant.

Whether the UK can retain access to the ERC and the rest of the Horizon 2020 programme, and if so on what terms, is just one tiny part of the intricate Brexit negotiations. Perhaps, as much as we can hope for as a community is that the importance of this initiative does appear to have impinged on some ministers’ minds. It does get talked about.

Mobility and migration

Mobility of researchers is in some ways an even trickier problem because worker mobility was such a central plank in the referendum campaigns. (Im)migration is an emotive subject and it is hard to envisage a scheme that enables scientists to travel across EU borders freely while preventing other workers from sharing that luxury.

‘Science is Global’ and ‘Together Science Can’, slogans respectively of the Royal Society (along with other European academies) and the Wellcome Trust, are all very well, but policy may make things much harder than the words can convey.

Again, though, there is some sign of movement, in so far as the salary cap at which a worker may move from one tier of visa to another may be set at a level facilitating movement of postdocs. Perhaps there is a glimmer of light.

So that leaves students as an unknown. Calculations suggest universities like my own, Cambridge, are not likely to see a dip in income from student fees as the numbers of EU students plummet. Indeed, it is thought we might actually see an increase, with a modest drop in numbers more than offset by an increase in the fees we charge per capita as EU students move to ‘overseas’ fees.

Many UK universities are likely to be much harder hit, although all such calculations can be no more than ‘guesstimates’ for the time being. That students are kept firmly within the immigration cap is an anomaly that it is hard to find anyone exhibiting much enthusiasm for except Prime Minister Theresa May, dating back to her time in the Home Office.

Rigid position

It is both depressing and ironic that, if she had not retained her rigid position on this issue, producing wild rhetoric about numbers outstaying their courses and other misleading ‘statistics’, the referendum results might well have gone the other way: ‘immigration’ numbers would have seemed so much more moderate without the student inclusion.

From these different factors it can be seen that universities are hit with uncertainty – over both numbers and income – from multiple directions. Research is just one part of that messy landscape of confusion.

Individual researchers plough on as best they can. Universities seek to support their researchers as well as they are able, but the future is murky and it is hardly surprising if not only non-UK EU researchers pack their bags – or at least scan the job advertisements and attempt to position themselves for a future beyond these shores – but also UK nationals consider where their future best resides.

On a good day I remain hopeful that the various challenges can be met and the successful research base in the UK, which punches significantly above its weight, will be enabled to continue to do so. But no one is counting their chickens just yet.

Professor Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, UK, Master of Churchill College and a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. She will give the Sir Hermann Bondi lecture at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 23 October on UK research in troubled political times.