The future of Britain in Europe: How will scientific collaboration continue and thrive?

​For the past half-century, collaboration and partnership with other nations in Europe have been ‘built in’ to our political culture; now, Britain faces a voyage into the unknown. What’s really important is that we form a powerful global community for making a difference to lives all over the world, just as CESAER Members have been doing for the last thirty years, writes Max Lu, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey
15th December 2020
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For the past half-century, collaboration and partnership with other nations in Europe have been ‘built in’ to our political culture; now, Britain faces a voyage into the unknown.

Just over a year ago, Professor Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graeme Reid published their report, which set out new opportunities for the UK to boost international partnerships on research and innovation. ´Changes and choices: advice on future frameworks for international collaboration on research and innovation´ advocates a close relationship with Europe and engagement with Horizon Europe. This was very welcome news, as continued international collaboration is vital to the UK remaining a global science power, tackling the world’s grand challenges and attracting and retaining the talent we need to stay competitive.

Obviously this is the ideal picture, but nothing is guaranteed as we forge a new path with the rest of Europe. However, it is pleasing to see that the UK Research and Innovation Corporate Plan 2020-2021 has committed to creating a UK Discovery Fund to ensure international research networks continue to flourish. In case the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe, this Discovery Fund will provide support for disruptive, investigator-led frontier research across all areas of research endeavour, retaining top UK talent and attracting the best researchers worldwide.

Scholarship and innovation are, fortunately, not bound by national borders. Their ‘nationhood’ is that of a common and transnational purpose: to educate, innovate and shape a changing world for the better. A commitment to this vision will prove the UK’s greatest strength. In order to survive and thrive the UK will need to look to the EU, but in a different way. Now, our former EU partners will join the ranks of our international collaborators – and the transnational educational market is gaining momentum as new discussions, deals and partnerships are emerging.

There’s cautious excitement in the higher education and research communities around the new possibilities; just last week, the UK Chancellor announced significant uplifting in funding for R&D in the 2020 Spending Review under a challenging fiscal situation. And whilst this is not a panacea, it is a step in the right direction. I am encouraged that our political leaders and the public are firmly behind the recognition that the only certainty for getting this country back on track post-Covid 19 and post-Brexit, and ensuring sustainable long-term growth, is through investing more in education, skills and innovation - a time-tested formula around the world.

Of course, public funding alone is not enough; investment by business and industry will be also critical, which is an opportunity for universities to enhance collaboration with industry to deliver true impact.

At my own institution, the University of Surrey, we are already strong in long-standing and fruitful European collaborations across many disciplines: 5G telecommunications, artificial intelligence, health and medical sciences, politics, economics and business are just a few of the areas where we have forged excellent relationships with CESAER Members and many others. This dynamic and impactful research is what defines us; it is integral to our mission and we are determined to find ways for it to continue. In terms of research collaboration, we actively encourage and pursue new funding sources - and sometimes this requires lateral thinking, such as drawing on existing funding from UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund that supports the collaborations involving both developed and developing countries.

Approximately 10 per cent of Surrey students are from the EU; they are drawn to us particularly for our strong programmes in hospitality & tourism management, economics, business and computer science among others. Each of our students brings something special to Surrey, and we are devising new scholarship schemes to support all European students to join us and continue to enrich our community. We are also supplementing the Erasmus scheme with our own funds to maintain student mobility, which is so valuable to students from both the UK and EU.

Importantly, we truly appreciate the great contribution and value of our EU colleagues and are supporting them in every way we can. We want our community to remain as diverse as it is now, and to continue to benefit from the contributions of our many and varied partners. There are certainly some hurdles - for example, EU citizens will need to apply for visas to work in the UK from 2021 - but Surrey’s clear message is one of very warm welcome.

Our vision is to educate the next generation for the benefit of society and to conduct research that is meaningful, impactful and helps to address global challenges. Increasingly, the world is not divided into developed or developing, Western or Eastern - each with its own isolated problems and solutions; the issues and the consequences belong to all of us. The UK has historically been at the forefront of innovation that improves lives, and the rest of Europe has long been side by side with us on the front line of this effort. This should not, and must not, change.

And yet the future also requires a new and bold step.

Where once we thought regionally or globally we need to take it one step further: academic institutions need to be ‘supranational’. Our thinking needs to transcend national boundaries and the interests of individual governments. Policy is hyper-transient and geopolitics changes in a heartbeat; education cannot, and should not, do the same. A colleague of mine once gave the example of watching five different ministers come and go during his tenure leading a Scottish academic institution. Agile as we may be, it is simply not possible to ‘pivot’ endlessly in response to political change or we risk turning in perpetual circles and never setting the direction and the navigation, which our staff and students - and society - rely on us to do.

We need to focus on what is right for the long-term interest of higher education, and indeed the future of our society: to find funding that allows us to keep collaborating and working across boundaries in educating future leaders, creating opportunities and applying knowledge.

The diversity and networks of our EU staff and students are an integral part of these exciting possibilities for growth. The excellence of our institutions depends on international talent. At Surrey, we’ll always find a way to achieve this regardless of Brexit’s vagaries and the questions that hang over funding.

What’s really important is that we form a powerful global community for making a difference to lives all over the world, just as CESAER Members have been doing for the last thirty years.

Professor Max Lu AO DL FREng FAA FTSE FCAS
President and Vice-Chancellor of University of Surrey
Chair of Task Force Key Technologies

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