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Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – February 2017

28 February 2017

Dear colleague

This month I spent two days in Switzerland as part of a delegation whose aim was to learn from the experience our Swiss colleagues and counterparts had when Switzerland abruptly found itself unable to take part in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. This was the result of a referendum outcome on migration which left the Swiss government unable to sign a protocol on free movement with Croatia, a recently joined EU country.  We had some interesting and helpful conversations and I’m happy to say that Swiss universities regained access to the key elements of Horizon 2020 with effect from 1 January.  Over the next couple of years, one way or another we in the UK will find ourselves facing many of the same issues that our Swiss colleagues encountered, although thankfully we at least have plenty of warning, have membership status now and are in sheer size terms significant players in European research. In a report entitled UK research and the European Union: The role of the EU in funding UK research, the Royal Society estimated that for the duration of Framework Programme 7 (2007-13), the UK’s contribution to the funding of research and innovation amounted to some €5.5bn, whereas we won funding from that pot to the tune of €8.8bn. If those figures are reliable then the UK receives around £1bn per year in research and innovation funding from EU.  If we were unable to take part in Framework Programme 9 (FP9; the successor to Horizon 2020), then our government would need to find a way of replacing that funding or tolerate a significant reduction in research capacity.

Paradoxically, however, money is unlikely to be the primary problem.  Last autumn the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced an extra £2bn per year for research and innovation for the remainder of this spending period, with a specific assurance that this increase would be in addition to any post-Brexit funding requirements. So it seems that we do have very welcome support from the government in this area. The bigger question is how to retain the capacity to engage in international collaboration.  One of the factors that helps the UK retain its globally strong position in research is that our participation in European research mechanisms such as the European Research Council (ERC) tends to encourage cross-European international collaboration.  Moreover, it is relatively easy for European researchers to live and work in this country (although problems relating to the incompatibility of pension arrangements have always been an issue). What we need to focus on is how to retain access to highly prestigious (because well-funded and competitive) international research funding programmes such as the ERC and how to ensure that we can continue to offer secure residence and employment rights both for EU citizens who are already here and for future recruits. The funding side and the employment/residence side are thus potentially two separate issues. It is possible to imagine scenarios where up to £1bn p.a. is spent on funding a prestigious international research programme — perhaps a home-grown one that is open to international applicants — but if we do not retain employment and residence rights for the best researchers from our European neighbours, or even expand such rights beyond Europe, then we will lose out.

Having had some time to consider the matter, my own belief is that we need to try to retain access to the successor programme to Horizon 2020 but not at any price. That is, we would need to ensure we get value for money for a potentially very large sum that could be spent on research and innovation in other ways. Equally importantly we would want to see the UK retain some influence over the shape of future programmes, since we would be such a substantial contributor and participant. Until the Brexit vote the UK was able to exert significant influence on research and innovation policy and we were able to make our voice heard very effectively. For obvious reasons we can expect a substantial diminution in influence but we would not want to be completely sidelined. For that reason, and because the whole progress of the Brexit negotiations could conceivably result in the UK’s having no access to FP9 post-Brexit, it is important to explore what the other options might be. I would be very interested in your views on this, so please do write to me if you have thoughts on the matter. What should our government be aiming to achieve in the Brexit negotiations where research and innovation are concerned? What would the best alternative scenario be if FP9 is not an option?

Where Erasmus+ is concerned, I think similar arguments apply. Access would be beneficial, but not at any price, and we should perhaps be arguing in parallel for a properly funded outward mobility agency for the UK so that we can ensure that future generations of graduates have an international outlook based on experience gained while they were studying. It is easier to imagine replacing the functions of Erasmus+ with a home-grown scheme (which is what the Swiss have ended up doing) but again I would be interested in your views on the matter.

Another way of expressing your views on a broad range of matters relating to your experience of Cardiff University is to complete the Staff Survey, which will remain open until 10 March. We very much value what we learn from your input and we will feed back on actions that we take in response. Communicating in an organisation as large as Cardiff University is never easy and understanding staff opinion via the survey is extremely important. Please do take part if you haven’t done so already.

Finally, congratulations are due to Professor Karen Holford, who succeeds Professor Elizabeth Treasure as Deputy Vice-Chancellor on April 3. I’m very much looking forward to working with Karen, who I know will thrive in this new role. I have already launched the process for appointing her replacement as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering, and hope to complete that process in time for a smooth handover. As ever, I’ll keep you informed.

With best wishes,

Colin Riordan