Staying united for collaboration and innovation’s sake

Materials World magazine
29 Oct 2019

Idha Valeur talks to the industry about collaboration, access to funding and expectations for the future in the context of Brexit preparations.

Since the last series of promises of increased funding for UK science and R&D, and financial statements this time last year, there have been limited developments. This was mostly due to the postponing of Brexit and the debate over securing a deal, or no deal. During all of this, a new Prime Minister entered 10 Downing Street.

So far in 2019, two relevant speeches have been held. The Spring Statement delivered in March 2019 by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, where he confirmed that the government was still committed to the Modern Industrial Strategy, launched in 2017, with the goal to invest in skills, industries and infrastructure to aid productivity in UK businesses and create jobs.

In his speech, Hammond said since then, the UK government has committed an additional £7bln to science and innovation. He added, ‘but technology does not stand still and neither can we. So, to maintain the UK’s technological edge, we will invest £79mln in ARCHER2, a new supercomputer to be hosted at Edinburgh University.’

Along similar lines, the newly appointed leader of the Conservatives and UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, conveyed in the Queen’s Speech, delivered on 14 October 2019, that the government is ‘committed to establishing the United Kingdom as a world-leader in scientific capability and space technology. Increased investment in science will be complemented by the development of a new funding agency, a more open visa system, and an ambitious national space strategy’.

While these statements seem positive, some further details around those ambitions and promises need to be outlined. Campaign for Science and Engineering Excecutive Director, Dr Sarah Main, responded to the Queen’s speech stating that, ‘The Prime Minister has been keen to associate himself with science on the front pages – from his inaugural speech, peppered with glowing references to UK science, followed by bold announcements on research funding and skills. Brexit is a counterpoint to this, with many concerned about the scale of disruption that a no deal outcome could cause for science.

‘We look forward to working with the government to develop its proposals. In particular, we await further details on the proposed creation of a new funding agency and how it will complement the work of UKRI, itself just a few years old.’

Funding for collaboration

One issue of concern is government funding, while another is how the future of research and innovation will look post-Brexit. How will it affect international collaboration and funding?

University of Cambridge Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, Professor Judith Driscoll, told Materials World that right now, it is still unclear how Brexit could potentially affect researchers’ abilities to collaborate international and access funding from outside UK borders. ‘I have been very fortunate to have a lot of EU funding over my career. In fact, I have been funded pretty much continuously by one scheme or the other for over 20 years. The individual funding has been the best and the collaborative funding has been good but perhaps less so than the individual funding.’

Further, Driscoll said she would like Brexit to be an opportunity to bring funding to people who want to work together and collaborate, regardless of where their location. ‘There should also be less bureaucracy in terms of meetings and reporting. We could just meet up at conferences instead of the six monthly events, which are quite draining,’ she said. ‘Also, there needs to be some kind of scheme between the basic science of EPSRC, and the Innovate schemes. There needs to be funds for developing work, before it gets to the industry level. All existing and new schemes could have an international branch as well. There is some of this with EPSRC, but I think there should be more.’

University of Birmingham School of Metallurgy and Materials Professor of Ceramic Science and Engineering, Jon Binner CEng, FIMMM, FECerS, FACerS, FAmpere, also believes the immediate outlook is uncertain, but that it might turn from bad to worse quickly. ‘[The outlook] looks okay in the short term, as there is a promise that if bids are supported by the EU reviewers up to the end of 2020, UK institutions would be able to take part with the funding coming from the UK government. However, key to all of this is the people element –  if we crash out with a no-deal and we manage to piss off our friends in the EU by doing so, we could find that we are less successful than might be expected based on historical data,’ he told Materials World.

Losing talent

A recurring point of concern for people in the industry is how Brexit could make it difficult for talented researchers to work in the UK, which might lead to lower levels of research. Less collaboration and fewer external influences will not do UK science any favours.

The Royal Society Foreign Secretary, Richard Catlow, told Materials World an analysis conducted by the society found that 33.5% of UK research papers are co-authored with other EU and associated countries in the Horizon 2020 bloc, in comparison with 17.6% papers co-authored with researchers in the USA. This proves that a lot of research in the UK is indeed collaborative.

‘The prospect of the UK leaving the EU with a no-deal exit arrangement is once again a distinct possibility. The Royal Society has argued strongly that no-deal is a bad deal for science, and we have been communicating the potential impacts on mobility, funding and the regulation of science to UK politicians and other European policymakers. UK scientists want to continue to be engaged in the European scientific endeavour, as do our scientific colleagues in other European nations,’ Catlow said. ‘Internationally excellent collaboration requires three essential ingredients – mobility of people in and out of a country, money that can move across national borders within projects and common mechanisms so that collaborations can embrace several countries at once. These are principles that the society is calling on the British government to underpin in its ongoing approach to science and innovation.’

Further, Catlow highlighted that Brexit, in general, could impact international collaboration in many ways, but that the main concern is that it will be a threat to the UK’s ‘ability to recruit the best talent from overseas, the loss of EU funding for research in universities and in businesses, and through international collaborations, which are integral to research projects like those cutting edge therapy trials, and require the alignment of international regulations’.

Sharing these concerns, Binner believes Brexit, regardless of a deal or not, will not do the science and innovation landscape in the UK any favours. He is worried that the UK does not produce enough undergraduate students within materials to fill the country’s needs. ‘The UK is particularly successful in obtaining European Community money, something that has not been brought to the attention of the public as far as I am aware, and we get lots of very bright and capable researchers coming to work in our labs. This is likely to drop to a trickle, certainly in the short-term, and many EU citizens who are here are thinking of heading back home or moving on elsewhere,’ he said.

‘If this happens in any sort of numbers, this will leave huge gaps in our activities – and at the moment it is a real struggle to find sufficient good British researchers. I don’t know if materials is a particularly difficult subject area, but I have a lot of defence-related research funding and they always want Brits and we just do not produce enough good undergrads to fill our needs, which means that there is a knock on to not being able to find sufficient British postdocs. The bottom line is that our ability to do world-class research will be dented,’ he added.

Solutions for the future

While the industry is sufficiently concerned, it is also clear on what needs to be prioritised to ensure the UK is in as a good position as possible to exit the EU.

Driscoll believes the key to staying attractive as a research nation in the future lies in having well equipped and maintained labs. ‘I have never understood why we don’t have many technicians in UK university labs. We would be so much more productive and efficient with them. In the end, we would save time and money, students would be much better trained and would feel more secure, and the research quality would be better. Also, we would probably be able to go beyond focusing on just high profile papers, but would be able to take things one step further towards commercialisation,’ she said.

Furthermore, Driscoll believes that retaining undergraduates for PhDs could be made easier if the burden of student loans were eliminated. ‘I want to see more UK undergraduates staying on to do PhDs. I and they worry about their student loan debt. I probably wouldn’t have done a PhD, had I finished my degree with debt. Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was in terms of the state paying for everything.  So, to keep good UK students in the system, I think the student loan system and fees system need to be rethought.’

Catlow added that an improved visa system will be important going forward. ‘We are making the case to the UK government for full association with Horizon Europe as the best option to maintain strong international collaborations in Europe and beyond. Furthermore, we have long been calling for the reform of the costly and convoluted visa system that acts as a barrier to new STEM talent from entering the country. Research into this issue revealed the cost of a skilled visa in the UK is six-times higher than the average of other leading science nations. The UK, therefore, needs a visa system that is open, welcoming and outward-facing and facilitates mobility and international collaboration with our European partners,’ he said.

Agreeing with Catlow on the importance of immigration and global collaboration going forward is IOM3 CEO, Dr Colin Church, who said, ‘Science and engineering, and the people and money that make it work, are increasingly global. For the UK to retain its world-class status in this, any post-Brexit settlement needs to allow for strong international co-operation with the EU, its member states and other international partners. Our future immigration rules also need to recognise, enable and support the vital role international students and academics play too, so we can continue to attract and retain the best scientific minds to our universities and help them support the commercialisation of research here in the UK.’

The outcome

At time of writing, Prime Minister Johnson had secured a Brexit deal with the EU, which was being voted on in Parliament, less than two weeks before the official exit-date. And it is not just the science industry that is perplexed, however, even this is only the beginning of the next stage. From here starts the process of negotiating new deals with individual states, with even more complex and varied arrangements for the science community to navigate.

Driscoll said it best, on the question of how she and her research groups prepare for Brexit, she said, ‘We are not preparing at all. I am really not sure how we could. I will just keep trying to get funds for the research I want to do, from wherever I can.’