International collaboration is synonymous with excellent research. Much of the UK’s collaboration is with Europe but it also has a rich international network with other research-intensive economies. The implications of this are that it will be challenging for the UK to ‘switch partners’ after Brexit and find additional and equally fruitful partnerships elsewhere.
A practical system for facilitating research partnerships that support both excellent research and national research priorities must be put in place to maintain and enhance existing links whether in Europe or beyond.
How international collaboration works
Collaboration between UK and foreign universities has increased rapidly over the past three decades. In 1981, less than 5% of UK research publications had an overseas co-author. In the ten years to 2016, UK researchers published 1.6 million items indexed on Web of Science and 50% was internationally co-authored.
Working internationally has enabled individual academics to increase their impact and nations to pool talent and resources to address global challenges that no country can tackle alone. International collaboration accounts for half the publication volume of leading research economies; national growth depends on collaboration; and the most highly cited papers are found in the international network, heralding a ‘Fourth Age’ of global research innovation and organisation.
International collaboration gets more attention than purely domestic research, and the combined talents of research institutions produces more innovative and useful outcomes. The global reach of UK universities is a primary source of innovation and increases the quality and efficiency of the UK’s national research base, yet it lacks any primary, organised funding source.
What impact leaving the EU will have
A growing share of international collaboration for UK institutions is with partner institutions in the EU. In 2016, some 58,700 of 101,000 co-authored papers were shared with institutions located elsewhere in Europe.
Most collaboration is bilateral, rather than multilateral. It takes place between well-reputed research organisations, with the ‘golden triangle’ on the UK side and the Max Planck Institute, the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and leading Dutch and Scandinavian universities on the EU side.
This international research accounts for a major share of UK universities’ most highly-cited papers, whereas purely domestic research output tends to be less cited.
With less European collaboration after Brexit, access to shared ideas and endeavour will be more limited, access to added capacity and specialist facilities will be restricted, and the average impact of UK research will fall.
Collaboration between UK and EU universities proliferated particularly rapidly because EU Framework Programme (FP) funds supported funding applications. Partnerships with Europe outside the FP are more difficult to negotiate. New partnerships elsewhere in the world will similarly find it difficult to find funding, and will likely of lesser priority and perhaps quality than existing links. They will all need a funding mechanism, and redirecting funds that would otherwise have gone to the new FP (Horizon 2020) may be the simplest source.
Mitigating the impact of leaving
To offset the loss of access to Framework Programme funds, one option would be for UK Universities to set up partnerships structured around specific themes and led by research agencies. Many Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) already exist between UK and overseas agencies and reflect established common research priorities.
The UK Research Councils (RCs) support research that reflects the UK’s strategic priorities. A bilateral agreement on common priorities between a RC, or other public agency, and one overseas is initiated by complementary research interests and furthered by mutual research standards.
It is easier to agree to share commitments where understanding has grown over some prior period. For example, Brazil has invested substantially in biotechnologies, doubling its research activity in the decade after 2000. Research Councils UK (RCUK) works in partnership with FAPESP, the Research Council for the State of São Paulo, to strengthen the existing research links between the UK and Brazil to help encourage and support proposals that involve international collaborative teams. The relevant MoU was first signed in 2009, and its success led to renewal in December 2015 for five years.
Such arrangements need not be restricted to agencies outside the EU. Within Europe, RCUK already works in partnership with Fonds National de la Recherche (FNR) in Luxembourg, to encourage and support proposals that involve international collaborative teams.
What many MoUs lack is the substance – a research fund – to back this up and enable words to become actions. The obvious sources for this are two-fold and readily managed within UKRI: the FP funds previously directed through the Commission (£750m per year); and the Global Challenge Research Fund previously directed through the UK Department for International Development (£300m per year). Within this fund of over £1Bn annually, UK agencies would bid for multi-year slices, focussing on topics identified by UKRI as being of exceptional UK value and where an overseas partner agency shares these objectives and has funding to match.
National agreements are meaningless. Individual collaboration lacks resources. Bilateral agency links, drawing on funding pools linked to national research priorities can flexibly bridge the gap at minimal bureaucratic cost.