Three ways the UK should be strengthening scientific excellence through international collaboration

Recently I was invited to sit on a panel at Parliamentary Links Day, a large annual event bringing together parliamentarians with researchers, where the key theme was international collaboration in science.

I strongly believe that here at the John Innes Centre, our success is built on our international outlook – our staff and students, our collaborations and our reach – so it’s a topic of great importance to me.

The event itself featured excellent talks including, then Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman MP, and Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Chi Onwurah MP. While they didn’t agree on everything, it was good to see so much cross-party support for international science.

There was a lot of talk about the term “scientific superpower”, which I have to admit has never quite sat right with me as a phrase, so I was pleased to hear discussion on this topic.

How we portray ourselves internationally is so important. I firmly believe we shouldn’t be positioning the UK as the science superpower – this gives the wrong impression. Being a science superpower is not about being better than other countries; it is about having the strength and knowhow to work in partnership with other countries to deliver sustainable solutions to global problems.

We need to position the UK as somewhere with open doors for collaboration. Based on our experiences here at JIC, I believe the UK needs stronger mechanisms in place to support research interactions with international academics, institutions and companies, on important areas of global concern such as climate and health.

To achieve this, I would like to see three short-term changes that could have very significant long-term impact.

1. More certainty around association with current and future EU research programmes

Horizon Europe is on everyone’s minds right now after the European Research Council (ERC) announced that grants would not be available to UK based researchers unless the UK’s associate membership was approved – or the researchers move their work to an EU country.  ‘Plan B’ has been discussed for some time, however the detail is yet to be announced.

Like many across the sector, association to Horizon Europe is still my first preference, but at this stage, the research community needs certainty – and I think it’s important to see the detail of “Plan B” before the summer recess as we had hoped.

2. A return to previous levels of ODA funding for research

Last year the government reduced the funds available for Official Development Assistance (ODA) and as a result the ODA allocation to UKRI for scientific research reduced significantly.

Our work in, with and for the Global South has been supported by UK ODA research grants for many years. Our researchers have strong partnerships and the resulting outputs of our research have real impact on the well-being of people across a wide range of low and middle income countries.  The impact those reductions will have on the work of dedicated researchers in the UK and their partners in the developing world in the long term cannot be underestimated.

3. Immigration schemes that make it easier for researchers and their families to relocate to the UK

It is not just funding that is needed to support international collaboration. We also need to be doing more to ensure that doors are open for international researchers to work in the UK.

The current system where international staff pay for visas fees and the Immigration Health Surcharge up front to enable work in the UK is a major disincentive for researchers to take up roles in the UK – particularly for those with families/dependants.  Both Government and research funders have a role to play to help create an environment that supports the brightest and best international researchers move to the UK.

Scope to apply for the costs faced by international researchers moving to the UK on grants is mixed across research funders. Some funders will cover visa costs only and some include the international health surcharges. Some will cover only the employee and others will cover partners and dependants. I would like to see all research funders uniformly cover the costs of both visa fees and immigration health surcharges for a researcher and their family within grant funding.

At this time where the future of international collaborative research is so uncertain we need to make sure any future collaborative agreement meets researchers’ needs. Rowing back on the research funding in the UK (whether via either Horizon Europe association or Plan B) and on mechanisms to support collaboration would be hugely detrimental to the UK.  I watch and wait to see what happens next with bated-breath.

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