On Brexit day, what is the future of European research collaboration?

Published on 31 January 2020

Ian Scoones

Professorial Fellow

Today is Brexit day, when the UK officially leaves the European Union. There is a long way to go to know what Brexit will actually mean, and what the future relationship with the EU will hold. Let’s hope that Boris Johnson’s ‘liberal, nuanced and cautious’ side holds sway.

‘Banksy does Brexit’. Credit: Flickr/Dunk (CC BY 2.0)

As a researcher who has worked on European projects throughout my career, I have a particular commitment to the ideals of European collaboration. I am currently the fortunate recipient of a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant, the brilliant programme that promotes European excellence in research under the motto of ‘high risk, high gain’. Across all disciplines, and as starter, consolidator and advanced grants, it offers some 2 billion euros per year to the best research proposals, as reviewed by peers internationally. Over the years, the UK has benefited from this core support to blue-skies, frontier research handsomely; not only supporting UK researchers but importantly attracting European researchers to the UK.

Our PASTRES project reflects the ERC ambitions, aiming to push the boundaries of thinking about uncertainty in society through engagement with pastoral systems –  based on livestock herding  – across the world. And embedded in the programme are European and international collaborations that reflect the importance of working together. While the grant is held in the UK at IDS, a core partner is the European University Institute in Florence, and we have research on-going in Sardinia, with support from a branch of CNR in Sassari. Our partners working in China, Ethiopia, Kenya, India and Tunisia also benefit from this European input, helping to develop a global outlook for European research.

This positive experience is reflected in my earlier European collaborations. One of my first big research grants, while working at the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) in London in the early 1990s, involved a number of European collaborations and was linked to the European Framework Programme (the Horizon 2020 predecessor). Our research focused on how people respond to risk in the drylands and resulting in the book, ‘Hazards and Opportunities’, among many other outputs from our research in Kenya and Zimbabwe. This work led to other collaborations, including our studies on soil fertility management in Africa, all supported through various incarnations of the EU Science and Technology for Development research funding scheme. This community of researchers – from across Africa, as well as France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK –  have variously worked on soils, pastoralism, dryland agriculture and much more, building knowledge and practice as a loosely networked group, linking European and African research.

As I have travelled around Europe since the 2016 referendum, visiting research colleagues across the continent, from Greece to Germany, I have been struck by the bewilderment and sadness surrounding the Brexit decision. There is no anger, just dismay that a long-term research partner may be no more. Many colleagues are well aware that the political dynamic that resulted in Brexit is firmly established with the rise populist politics plaguing Europe. Through good fortune and good sense, the options of ‘popular’ referenda on Europe have not been offered, and forms of political representation are more democratic and representative, offsetting the rise of extreme views.

As the European Commission develops a new round of 100 billion euros of funding for collaborative research under Horizon Europe from 2021, let’s hope that common sense will prevail in the UK, and we sign up as associates, like Switzerland and Israel.  Setting up a separate system for targeted research and innovation, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), or a UK version of the ERC for basic research funding, has been mooted, but really doesn’t make sense.

As also highlighted in an IDS response to the recent Smith-Reid review, breakthroughs come from collaboration, and genuine cross-national, cross-disciplinary working, and for all its faults (and there are a few for sure), European collaboration in science – social, natural, physical and more – must be central to addressing the global challenges of the future. We are after all still Europeans in Europe, if not in the Union… at least for now.