International research collaborations need solid investment and a fair visa system

Published on 12 November 2019

The much-needed independent review on the future of international collaboration, innovation and research by Professor Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graeme Reid was published last week.  The review, called ‘Changes and choices: advice on future frameworks for international collaboration on research and innovation’ highlights the important choices facing a new UK government if it is to retain and build on the UK’s global research reputation in the context of Brexit.

Many of the review’s recommendations are to be welcomed. The review rightly underlines the importance of the UK’s research and innovation, and the opportunity to expand this further through an ambitious vision for international collaboration. It rightly recognises the high value of the UK’s links with Europe and EU funding programmes, both financially and in the networks, collaboration and sharing of expertise that these afford. At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), our European partnerships underpin vital research programmes, across issues from inequality and trust, to the social science of global infectious threats, to the resilience of pastoral societies amidst climate and economic uncertainties. Collaborations between institutions in the UK, Europe and low- and middle-income countries are vital to address the global challenges we all face.

Learn from best practice

Such research needs investment.  We welcome the proposal for a significant increase in funding for international research and innovation, including a substantial uplift for basic research. We welcome the Review’s support for the proposal that the UK seek Association to Horizon Europe, in ways that will depend on the outcomes of Brexit negotiations, but urge that a new government commit to the resources and investment needed to make such an association reality. The suggestions by Professor Smith and Professor Reid for re-directing funding that previously went to the EU for international collaboration is welcomed, but I would like to see funding commitments made that strike a balance between European collaboration, overseas development assistance and global collaboration, as well as learning from past funding for international collaborations and from best-practice on transparency and accessibility.

Any new funding mechanisms for collaboration should learn from existing evidence on the efficiency and effectiveness of funding for international collaborations. The Research Councils and the Department for International Development (DFID) take an approach to open competition and tendering, which although requiring significant investment on the part of bidding organisations, does ensure transparency and enable a diversity of applications. However, from the experience of IDS, there is less transparency from other government departments with regards to their procurement processes – for instance for the Newton and Prosperity Funds. Any new funding mechanisms should learn from the excellent online procurement facility that DFID use, which provides early notification on upcoming funding opportunities. This allows for greater forward planning, fostering meaningful collaborations and partnerships.

Include low and middle-income countries

Caution should be shown regarding placing a focus only on large awards as the implication is often that these can only be managed and therefore only awarded to universities or very large institutions.  One of the essential components of the UK’s research ecosystem, and a component which plays a large role in its success, uniqueness and global reputation, is the number of smaller research institutions and they should not be side-lined from any new funding programmes. In its efforts to support the well-established diverse research ecosystem in the UK, a new government must ensure that small and medium enterprises as well as smaller research institutions, particularly those based in low and middle-income countries, are able to participate in bidding processes.

At IDS we would also like to see a firm commitment to fostering research partnerships that genuinely involve the people and organisations on the ground in low- and middle-income countries as well as developed countries, and not just as data collectors or receptors, but in conceptualising and designing work.

Introduce a fairer visa system

However, all of this will be undermined if the UK does not immediately implement a fairer visa system. This is a major component that is missing from the remit of this review and as the authors themselves say, an exploration of future arrangements for international collaboration in R&D is incomplete without addressing the UK’s immigration policy.

The UK should be welcoming the best and brightest minds from across the world to our research institutions and nurturing a new generation of global thinkers and leaders.  We need to make it easier, not harder to study in the UK and we need to welcome visiting scholars and partners to share ideas and knowledge.

While reforms to the UK Tier 4 Visas for international students make the process of obtaining a visa easier and the proposal to remove the cap on Tier 1 visas for scientists was welcomed, many academics and researchers from low-income countries still face significant hurdles in acquiring visas to visit the UK.

At IDS I have been alarmed to see the increase in visitor visas being denied at the last minute, to eminent research partners – the majority from African nations. Their visits are critical to capacity development and to the co-design and development of research programmes funded by the UK government. Processes to plan and shape the design and delivery of research are being impeded, opportunities to share critical research findings that could make a difference to tackling global challenges such as epidemics, climate change and breakdown and poverty, are missed and the UK’s reputation as a venue for cutting-edge global debates is diminished. These Home Office decisions are thwarting the UK’s ambitions and need to be urgently addressed in order to build its reputation as a home for international research and learning excellence.

Prioritise the Global Talent Strategy

Developing the review’s recommendation for a Global Talent Strategy should be a priority for a new UK Government and must involve BEIS, the Home Office and DFID working together.

The UK’s research and innovation expertise is an absolutely vital component of the ‘Global Britain’ offer.  Supporting the diverse research ecosystem and fostering cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration, for example between medical and natural sciences, and the social sciences and humanities must remain a top priority for a new UK Government. Alongside developing new technologies and commercial products we also need investment in high quality and contextually grounded social science research that promotes international, equitable and interdisciplinary research partnerships. This Review takes us several steps in these directions, but there is more to do. I hope to see a new UK Government take forward and build on its recommendations in further consultation with the UK’s varied research sector.




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