UCL European Institute


Europe and Research Excellence in the UK

07 February 2015, 12:00 am


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Prof. Dame Julia Goodfellow examines the role of EU research collaboration and funding in sustaining and fostering research excellence in the UK.
Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow
9 February 2015

The recent results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a national review of research across all disciplines and all Universities that takes place about every 6 years, have once again demonstrated the strength of research in the UK with 30% of submissions judged to be world leading. Moreover, this time it not only took account of high quality outputs (books, journal articles, patents and so on) but also the economic, social and cultural impact that stems from high quality research.

Following a visit to the University of Ghent, one of the University of Kent's international strategic partners, I have been reflecting on the relationship between research excellence and the European dimension to research funding and collaboration.

Our international openness is a pillar of our research strength in the UK. It is perhaps striking that the institutions that did particularly well in the REF have all invested in high quality staff - and recruited from all over the world.  Research cooperation moreover transcends national boundaries. Researchers will naturally want to cooperate with other experts wherever they may be found. Inevitably, however, a large number will be found in other European universities: nearly half of the world's top 400 universities are to be found in this continent.

Europe is not the same as the EU: there are 52 countries in Europe compared with 28 in the Union. And European countries are home to many vital areas of research collaboration that necessarily have to involve researchers from a much wider pool of nations: CERN; the EMBL; ITER and so on. But it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of the EU on research - and the value that the EU has for the UK.

The EU has provided research partnerships and research funding for many years through the framework programmes; collaborative opportunities - such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and the Jean Monnet programme; the European Research Council and, more generally, now through Horizon 2020, the EU's new Research and Innovation Programme. Last year, as part of its overall review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK, the coalition government undertook a consultation and subsequent report on the role of the EU in promoting research.  It set out the variety of ways in which EU institutions interact with member states in this arena, making positive judgements on the impact of the EU for research and development in the UK. It seems to me that there are broadly four areas where the European Union is particularly beneficial for research in this country.

First, freedom of movement. It has always been the case that scholars have built on the achievements of their predecessors and compared ideas with their peers. Knowledge and scholarship are borderless. But it is easier to recruit from other EU countries, easier to exchange students within Europe, and easier for UK and other European researchers to collaborate without the need for visas. The profound impact that freedom of movement has on the vitality of the university campus and the richness of UK intellectual life should not be under-estimated.

Second are the specific programmes to promote exchanges. Study is not, of course, the same as research, though it might be noted that, under the Erasmus programme, in the last year over 14,000 UK students spent a period abroad and 25,000 continental European students came to the UK. Studying, working or researching in another country is not just a mercantilist transaction, pursued in order to enhance career prospects. It broadens an individual's horizons as they benefit from living in, and adapting to, a different culture. In the research field, analysis of publications shows that international collaboration and researcher mobility correlate with high research quality. Under the predecessor to Horizon 2020, the EU Framework programme (FP7) more than 3,000 British researchers benefitted from MSCA to develop their ideas, to hone their methods and increase their engagement.

Third, EU support expands our research activity. UK researchers are keen to collaborate and the European collaborative programmes support this. The UK is often seen as partner of choice and we have in turn been a strong player in FP7 (receiving just over €6bn - equivalent to over 10% of all UK research funding in 2011/12, for example). There is little or no conflict or duplication with other bilateral relationships: having the EU 'seal of approval' can attract greater interest from inside and outside the EU. Grants from the European Research Council are seen as highly prestigious and show that Europe can fund the best individuals as well as promote collaboration. Horizon 2020 increases the opportunities for facilitating excellence, although, as Universities UK has stated it will be important that any money earmarked for Jean-Claude Juncker's proposed new European Fund for Strategic Investment should retain its focus on excellent research and innovation.

Last - but by no means least - is the role that the EU can play in prioritisation.  We cannot always do everything in the UK alone. We have to focus limited funding and have partnerships on big infrastructure projects. Working within the EU can help us to define and make more inclusive solutions to the grand challenges that face all countries. Many policy problems "don't have passports", and cooperating across borders will not only create intellectual and resource synergies, it will also broaden the policy audience. Influencing the global agenda is easier as part of this broader endeavour. Scientific advisory committees are firmly established as part of the landscape of cooperation within the EU and can help ensure that inquiry is related to need. And European institutions, working together, can act as a magnet for wider international links.

Research doesn't need more bureaucracy and it doesn't need prescriptive direction. But it does need a sense of purpose and it does need enablers.  The best minds usually want to work on the biggest ideas. The European Union, for all its imperfections, remains a benefit for my University and for the UK higher education sector as a whole.