Brexit toll: the cross-bor­der re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions likely to take the big­gest hit

Sub­jects where ex­pen­sive kit is shared could be vul­ner­a­ble, anal­y­sis sug­gests. Si­mon Baker writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Si­mon.baker@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Since the UK voted in 2016 to leave the Euro­pean Union, much of the fo­cus in terms of the po­ten­tial im­pact on higher ed­u­ca­tion has re­volved around re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the UK and other EU na­tions.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the ref­er­en­dum, con­cerns were raised that pan-Euro­pean projects would ditch the UK as a part­ner given the fu­ture un­cer­tainty over whether it would re­main part of Euro­pean Com­mis­sion re­search pro­grammes.

While projects funded un­der the cur­rent Hori­zon 2020 pro­gramme now have cer­tainty af­ter the UK’s con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion was con­firmed as part of Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, its role in the Euro­pean re­search land­scape af­ter 2020 is still very much un­known.

The po­ten­tial di­rect im­pact of any loss of EU fund­ing on the UK and its uni­ver­si­ties can be es­ti­mated by look­ing at where such money cur­rently flows, but what might be the knock-on ef­fect for col­lab­o­ra­tion more gen­er­ally? Af­ter all, fund­ing from pro­grammes such as Hori­zon 2020 can some­times sim­ply be a fa­cil­i­ta­tor for cross-bor­der work­ing that con­tin­ues once net­works of aca­demics have been es­tab­lished.

One way to view this is to look at the cur­rent level of co-au­thor­ship be­tween the UK and Euro­pean neigh­bours com­pared with aca­demics based in other parts of the world, data that can be ex­tracted from El­se­vier’s Sco­pus data­base of in­dexed re­search us­ing its SciVal anal­y­sis tool.

This shows that well over half (56 per cent) of the re­search pub­lished by UK aca­demics in con­junc­tion with an in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tor be­tween 2014 and 2017 in­volved a co-au­thor based in Europe, a much big­ger share than North Amer­ica (44 per cent). Given that about half of all UK re­search (51 per cent) in­dexed in Sco­pus over the same pe­riod fea­tured cross-bor­der col­lab­o­ra­tion, the im­por­tance of con­ti­nen­tal uni­ver­si­ties to the na­tion’s aca­demic net­works can­not be over­stated.

“Europe” in this con­text does mean the whole con­ti­nent, whether coun­tries are in the EU or not, but does the pat­tern hold when look­ing only at in­di­vid­ual coun­tries?

Although it is not pos­si­ble to use SciVal to as­sess the UK’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with the EU as one bloc, view­ing the top 10 na­tions for UK re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion world­wide re­veals the dom­i­nance that coau­thor­ship with the US has over any Euro­pean na­tion.

Al­most 30 per cent of all the UK’s in­ter­na­tion­ally co-au­thored re­search fea­tured a US au­thor, way ahead of the most im­por­tant Euro­pean col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ger­many (15 per cent). It is also no­tice­able that EU coun­tries make up only half of the top 10: China (11 per cent), Aus­tralia (10 per cent) and Canada (7 per cent) all play a prom­i­nent role. And Switzerland man­ages to fig­ure as the 10th most sig­nif­i­cant col­lab­o­ra­tor (6 per cent of in­ter­na­tional pa­pers) de­spite be­ing a rel­a­tively small coun­try and be­ing out­side the EU (although it is part of Hori­zon 2020).

How­ever, does this world­wide pat­tern – which sug­gests that the UK al­ready em­barks on plenty of re­search with­out EU col­lab­o­ra­tion – re­peat across sub­ject ar­eas?

Tak­ing Europe – EU and non-EU – as a whole and look­ing at the seven sub­jects in which the UK pub­lishes the most re­search over­all sug­gests that it is physics and the life sciences that en­joy the strong­est UK-Europe net­works. In the SciVal topic ar­eas of medicine; bio­chem­istry, ge­net­ics and molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy; and physics and as­tron­omy, Euro­pean co-au­thors fea­ture in 59 per cent or more of the UK’s col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts be­tween 2014 and 2017.

How­ever, one im­por­tant, and rapidly grow­ing, re­search area – com­puter sci­ence – leans less on panEuro­pean co-au­thor­ship (51 per cent

of in­ter­na­tional pa­pers); and in en­gi­neer­ing the Euro­pean share drops be­low half.

Drilling down into these fig­ures sug­gests that the in­creas­ing links that UK re­searchers are forg­ing with China may be at least partly be­hind this trend.

In en­gi­neer­ing, China is now the UK’s most im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tor, with joint re­search be­tween the coun­tries show­ing a 37 per cent in­crease from 2014 to 2017, growth that is way ahead of any other coun­try links even though cross-bor­der work­ing is gen­er­ally on an up­ward curve. It means that al­most a quar­ter of the UK’s in­ter­na­tional re­search in this dis­ci­pline fea­tured a Chi­nese co-au­thor from 2014 to 2017.

In com­puter sci­ence, too, it is un­likely to be long be­fore China be­comes the UK’s top col­lab­o­ra­tor and over­takes the US, given that growth in UK-Chi­nese co-au­thored pub­li­ca­tions has been 42 per cent over the pe­riod ver­sus just 12 per cent for UK-US col­lab­o­ra­tion.

For both sub­ject ar­eas, in­di­vid­ual Euro­pean part­ners make up much smaller shares, and their con­tri­bu­tions are pro­por­tion­ately sim­i­lar in size to sub­jects where it would typ­i­cally be ex­pected that panEuro­pean co­op­er­a­tion might be lower, like the so­cial sciences or the arts and hu­man­i­ties.

Com­pare this with sub­jects where col­lab­o­ra­tion across the EU is clearly act­ing as a ma­jor driver for the UK, fields such as medicine, bio­chem­istry and par­tic­u­larly physics, where co-au­thor­ship with aca­demics in Ger­many on its own rep­re­sents a quar­ter of the UK’s col­lab­o­ra­tive out­put.

In ef­fect, it points to ar­eas where the shar­ing of ex­pen­sive fa­cil­i­ties is vi­tal to re­search – physics and biotech be­ing ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples – as be­ing those where UK schol­ar­ship post-Brexit could be harmed if ac­cess to kit in other coun­tries is re­stricted in any way.

Aline Cour­tois, who edited a re­cent re­port for UCL’s Cen­tre for Global Higher Ed­u­ca­tion on Euro- pean re­searchers’ per­spec­tives about Brexit, said that find­ings from the study sug­gested that the “prob­lem of shared fa­cil­i­ties will be more acute” in sci­ence sub­jects.

One par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the re­port, on the views of re­searchers in Switzerland, shows that con­cerns could cut both ways though. It quotes one for­mer head of depart­ment at a Swiss in­sti­tu­tion warn­ing that its re­searchers might find they have “more lim­ited ac­cess” to hightech labs at in­sti­tu­tions such as the uni­ver­si­ties of Ox­ford and Cam­bridge and points out that fa­cil­i­ties like the new Fran­cis Crick In­sti­tute in Lon­don might be in de­mand.

“All of those are re­sources that Euro­pean re­searchers may want to use,” the quoted head of depart­ment says.

But Dr Cour­tois also said that it was “dif­fi­cult to es­tab­lish for sure which dis­ci­plines will suf­fer the most”, adding that there were sug­ges­tions that aca­demics in the UK were ac­tu­ally most wor­ried about hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences col­lab­o­ra­tion “as they doubted that the UK gov­ern­ment would re­place EU fund­ing and schemes for these dis­ci­plines”.

“In other coun­tries, in­ter­vie­wees stated that of­fi­cial fig­ures do not ad­e­quately cap­ture the ex­tent of EU-wide col­lab­o­ra­tion, es­pe­cially in the hu­man­i­ties and sciences – as a lot hap­pens with­out the sup­port of large EU grants (but still re­quires [things like] free move­ment [of re­searchers]),” she also pointed out.

There­fore, de­spite the bib­lio­met­ric data that are avail­able, it re­mains dif­fi­cult to pre­dict how ex­actly how Brexit might change the col­lab­o­ra­tive land­scape across dis­ci­plines. Many schol­ars in the UK and else­where in Europe will be hop­ing that agree­ments on re­search are thrashed out that, in the end, mean that Brexit has lit­tle ef­fect at all.

Team chal­lenge the ‘prob­lem of shared fa­cil­i­ties will be more acute’ in sci­ence sub­jects

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