Brexit and academia German-British nervousness

The British referendum on whether or not to leave the EU has left the academic world in a state of uncertainty. Are collaborative research and the freedom to travel now at risk? 

Rarely has there been such accord in academia, with Europe’s universities making the unanimous appeal: “No Brexit please!”. The collective shock was considerable following 23 June 2016 – the day on which the majority of Brits voted to leave the EU.
 
“The biggest problem is the uncertainty”, says Lesley Wilson from Scotland, who is the secretary general of the European University Association (EUA). She has been working to promote academic exchange in Europe for decades, helping among other things to establish the Tempus student exchange programme. “Everyone is nervous because nobody knows what will happen. The United Kingdom is an academic partner no-one wants to lose.”

What will happen to Horizon 2020?

This is backed up by figures in the European Commission’s monitoring report. Horizon 2020 for example, a research framework programme costing 75 billion euros, is seen as a flagship project for collaborative European research. With their outstanding projects, Germany, the United Kingdom and France combined were granted almost half of the project funding from this EU budget. It is teamwork that makes them globally competitive research nations.
 
The phone in Victoria Llobet’s office rings frequently these days. She heads the Brussels branch of the European Liaison Office of the German Research Organisations (KoWi) – an institution financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to provide support to German researchers applying for EU project funding. These researchers are now asking worriedly whether they should perhaps cancel planned cooperation with British colleagues. At present, all Llobet can do is cite what she reads in the newspaper. She was relieved to note that Philip Hammond, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised to continue paying EU research funding until 2020.

Attempts by Brussels to reassure

Political agencies are doing their best not to add to the nervousness. “It is far too early to speculate about the continuation of research funding”, says Lucìa Caudet, the European Commission’s spokesperson for research and innovation. As she explains, there is nothing to negotiate until such time as the United Kingdom invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows any member state to leave the EU. Caudet attempts to reassure British researchers who are concerned that they are already an unattractive partner for new project applications: “Since the United Kingdom is still a member state, its nationals are entitled to qualify for Horizon 2020 funding.”
 
This is a definition that German higher education and research institutions are sticking to, for it is not only EU member states but also associated countries that can take part in the framework programme. “Switzerland and Turkey also participate in the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus programmes”, says Lesley Wilson from the EUA, adding that everything will depend in future on what is agreed in London – whether for example research money will continue to be invested in the jointly agreed funding programme. “We will advocate this together with the German Rectors’ Conference”, says Wilson, explaining that the opinion of German universities carries weight in the United Kingdom.

Mobility is of paramount importance

Despite all the optimism, the anti-EU sentiment in Great Britain has shaken all those for whom mobility is part and parcel of everyday life – like Mareike Kleine, for instance. A professor of international politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), she did her PhD in Berlin, where she also spends a lot of her (personal and work) time. “There are whole departments made up of EU researchers at the LSE”, explains Kleine, “as we recruit from a global market.” The same applies to the students. “When picking candidates, we think only about who we want at present, not about where someone comes from. Our pool of applicants will shrink if that becomes a criterion.” That would be especially tough for German students and researchers, many of whom want to go to Britain: according to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), nearly 16,000 German students and around 5,000 researchers are currently at universities in the United Kingdom.
 
The Max Planck Society is also following the developments in Great Britain with close attention. It was only as recently as 2014 that the “Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research” opened in Berlin and London, a bilaterally funded flagship project involving German-British research cooperation. “Naturally things will not become any easier as far as academic exchange is concerned”, says Max Planck Society spokesperson Christine Beck. Victoria Llobet from KoWi is likewise concerned about freedom of movement: “Our researchers routinely fly at short notice to a project partner’s conference. If they had to apply for a visa, that would pose a major obstacle.”
 
Perhaps that is the tragic irony of Brexit: that precisely a vote in favour of a political split should give rise to a new sense of unity. Lesley Wilson does not believe that the Brits will want to give up what has been jointly achieved: “Our networks are strong and will continue to exist.”