Funding international research collaboration focussed on UK priorities

The leading edge of research and technology innovation is tied to international collaborative research. It is therefore essential that UK science policy enables continuing participation in this network at the highest level, with a targeted and cost-effective management structure.


History of international elements of UK Research

Over three centuries the structure of research has shifted from an individual pursuit, to the 19th century emergence of research institutions, and to one nationally managed and funded since 1945. We are now in a Fourth Age in which elite research groups form part of a global network. That network accounts for half of the UK’s research publications, with a particular concentration of such links in the ‘golden triangle’ around Ox-Bridge and London.

In 1980, less than 5% of UK academic research had an overseas collaborator despite the UK’s scientific links to the US and across Europe and the Commonwealth. Over the next 35 years, almost all the growth in UK research output occurred as part of increasing international collaboration while the purely domestic research base hardly expanded. Successive governments took credit for the growth of science and the prestige and technology benefit that it conferred, but it was not solely theirs to claim.

This increase in international collaboration was mirrored in all the advanced research economies. In the 1980s there was a strong trans-Atlantic axis, with links to Japan. The EU Framework Programmes shifted that balance so that, by 2016, 15 of the 21 countries that co-authored 1% or more of UK publications were EU nations.


Success of UK Research

The research profile that the UK built on this global platform is exceptional. It spends 4% of the world’s Gross Expenditure on R&D on 6% of the world’s researchers who are authors on 8% of the world’s research articles, attracting 11% of the world’s academic citations and creating 14% of the world’s most highly-cited output. Those exceptional articles include 17% of the world’s research papers with more than 500 citations and 20% of those with more than 1000 citations. Put in simple terms, the UK’s average research impact measured on conventional indicators surpasses that of the USA.


Challenges posed by new international actors and networks

The UK needs to continue to be both innovative and sufficiently funded if it is to continue to be at the forefront of world research. Global research is no longer dominated by a few advanced economies. New scientific nations are emerging, but the UK is missing out because much of the collaboration capacity of these nations is being absorbed by new regional networks, in turn creating a counter-balance for the traditional US-Europe axis.

Chinese universities have research partnerships, enhanced by economic and cultural support, across Asia-Pacific, with institutions in South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Australia’s research collaboration with China is increasing faster than with the UK. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have key regional axes across North Africa and the Middle East. Brazil (also a relatively frequent UK partner) is the axis of an emerging Latin American research network with Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

Research institutions that might once have been potential new UK partners are already closely engaged with nearby, regional partners. These new networks are being established primarily with geographical neighbours, making it harder for the UK to form new partnerships when it (belatedly?) comes looking. A more proactive approach would be recommended to make the most of these new opportunities


Challenges posed by structure of international research funding

The greatest constraint for the UK, however, will be the structure of funding. Research is not like trade or finance. It depends not on national agreements but on individual priorities and shared objectives. A collaborative research application may promise excellence but its success depends on mutual support. Research agencies are wary of supporting applicants unless they see reciprocal funds from ‘the other side’. Indeed, a key success factor for the EU Framework Programmes was having a common funding pool that overcame this constraint.


Suggested new structure under the remit of UK Research Councils

Whilst we will have to invest to overcome these challenges to our funding, we must also ensure that funding supports UK priorities as well as research objectives.  Equally, we must avoid creating a bureaucracy to oversee and organise international collaboration. The UK Research Councils, experienced in administering research grants, could also look after overseas research development within the new UK Research & Innovation structure. They should not manage a ‘blue skies’ remit: funds for international links should be concentrated where the UK shares specific research and technology priorities with partner countries. The preferred partnerships for engineers may not be the same as for health research or biotechnology, so a network of targeted collaborative links will be needed.

A functional model already exists. The Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council has had a bilateral arrangement with the Brazilian research funding agency FAPESP for some years, born out of mutual prioritisation of ‘green’ technology. The link has expanded to include other agencies as other shared priorities have been identified.

The funding can come from two sources. One is redeployment of current investment in the Framework Programmes. The other source is the Global Challenges Research Fund of moneys redirected from DfID. Undoubtedly many bilateral arrangements will be with existing EU partners such as the Max Planck in Germany and CNRS in France. Some may even be with Brussels to re-engage in selective areas of Horizon 2020 where these meet the UK’s priority needs.

The system proposed would allow such flexibility as well as being affordable. Investing time and resources into creating this new structure is essential if the UK research base is to maintain its position and continue to underpin economic development after we leave the EU.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
BFPG Admin