This is our response to Professor Sir Adrian Smith's call for evidence on future frameworks for international collaboration on research and innovation.
Published 24 May 2019
The UK should associate to Horizon Europe at the earliest opportunity. 97% of the Crick’s group leaders would prefer the UK to access Horizon Europe rather than establish alternative domestic funding schemes to support international collaboration.
If the UK if unable to associate with Horizon Europe, any new schemes for international collaboration should adopt the principles of Framework Programmes. They should be based on excellence, be open to the world, and support discovery science and international mobility.
- Strengthening international collaboration and attracting outstanding researchers to the UK isn’t just a matter of funding. It also requires cross-departmental support for science including a fit-for-purpose immigration system.
- The Francis Crick Institute is dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Our state-of-the-art building in central London brings together 1,500 scientists, students and support staff working across disciplines. We are a diverse, open and international institute, with staff from more than 70 countries.
Recommendation: The UK should associate to Horizon Europe as soon as possible.
- The UK should associate to all parts of Horizon Europe at the earliest possible opportunity (see Annex 1 for case studies on the Crick’s EU-funded researchers). In a survey,  97% of the Crick’s group leaders said that they would prefer the UK to access Horizon Europe rather than establish domestic alternatives to support international collaboration. EU Framework Programmes are widely regarded by scientists to be one of the most successful multilateral funding schemes globally, and bring significant benefits to British research. They have an international reputation for quality, are open to the world, and offer unmatched support for early-career researchers, discovery science and collaborative projects.
- Losing access to European Research Council (ERC) grants would be a particular blow to UK science – they are one of the world’s most prestigious awards and UK-based researchers won more ERC advanced grants than any other country in the latest round. In 2018, the Crick secured €12 million from ERC awards. Critically, this investigator-led funding is portable, supports excellent discovery research and facilitates competition across Europe and beyond. This raises standards in a similar way to the Champions League in football. The application process is rigorous and utilises panels of international experts with diverse perspectives and wide-ranging expertise. Talented researchers may well choose to base themselves in other eligible countries if they cannot access ERC investment from the UK.
- Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are another important component of Framework Programmes, offering generous support for early-career researchers and encouraging international mobility. Teamwork and international collaboration are at the heart of science – support for mobility between countries is particularly important as researchers are establishing their careers and building their professional network.
- The UK is currently one of the largest recipients of EU research funding, but associating to Horizon Europe is good value even if Britain becomes a net contributor to the programme. Framework Programmes deliver more than just money, fostering international collaboration, bringing disciplines together and attracting talent to the UK.
Recommendation: Any new UK schemes should adopt Framework Programme principles.
- If the UK sets up new schemes to support international collaboration, these should be in addition to EU funding and adopt many of the principles of Framework Programmes, particularly ERC grants. They should be open to scientists from around the world, support excellent discovery research and balance funding across disciplines. They should also offer support for early-career as well as established researchers, facilitate international mobility and utilise international peer review.
- The UK would have to work hard to ensure that new funding is prestigious, avoids only UK-wide competition and isn’t nationally-focused. Learning should be drawn from difficulties that the Swiss faced in setting up a domestic replacement after the country was excluded from Framework Programmes in 2014. Any new schemes must also be independent of political decision-making. UK Research and Innovation would be best placed to oversee and administer funding given it’s an arms-length body but is influential in government, and has a remit spanning disciplines, academia and industry.
- Alongside any new funding, the government should reaffirm its commitment to existing funds to support international partnership and knowledge exchange, including the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). For example, through GCRF funding, the Crick has established an African Network that supports outstanding early-career scientists.
Recommendation: The UK should think beyond funding to enhance international collaboration.
- Supporting international collaboration and attracting outstanding researchers to the UK isn’t just a matter of funding. Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Chris Skidmore recently said that achieving the government’s R&D investment target of 2.4% of GDP not only requires cash but also an additional 260,000 researchers.
- With that in mind, there must be cross-departmental support for science so that Britain maintains its world-leading position after Brexit and remains an attractive destination for researchers. This includes ensuring that all school children have a high-quality STEM education and fit-for-purpose careers advice, and the science workforce can access excellent training through both vocational and academic routes. Investment in world-leading infrastructure is also critical, as well as support for UK assets including its cohorts such as UK Biobank, genomics capability and rich health data across the NHS.
- In addition, the UK needs a fit-for-purpose immigration system after Brexit that attracts talent from around the world. This must be simpler, faster and cheaper than the current visa system. It should also support the research workforce at all levels and career stages, from technician to PhD student to professor, as well as including provisions for families and research teams.
 74 of the Crick’s 103 group leaders responded to the survey – 97% of respondents expressed a preference for UK access to Horizon Europe, 3% had no preference over that or alternative UK funding schemes to support international collaboration.
The Crick's EU-funded researchers
Caetano Reis e Sousa, EU group leader
Portuguese scientist Caetano Reis e Sousa leads a lab looking at how the immune system works, to develop better vaccines and cancer therapies. He is a distinguished scientist who won the prestigious Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2017 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2019. He was awarded a €2.5m ERC Advanced Grant in 2010 and another in 2018, and has hosted 10 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellows in his lab who have brought in an additional €2m of EU funds for research.
“European research continues to thrive thanks to the generous support of ERC grants, which promote fruitful collaborations across the continent. Working with international partners over the last decade, we’ve built up a wealth of knowledge about the mechanisms by which the immune system detects pathogen invasion, and how this process could be used to target cancer. This simply would not have been possible without the financial backing of the ERC. If the UK wants to continue to be a world-class scientific player after Brexit, we need to maintain access to Horizon funding. It is hard to imagine that any credible and ambitious alternative could be provided that would match its scale and success.”
Sharon Tooze, US group leader
Sharon Tooze is the head of a lab studying how our bodies stay healthy by breaking down and recycling worn-out or unhealthy cell parts. By understanding how this process works at a molecular level, her team hope to better understand human diseases including neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. A world-leader in her field, Sharon was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2018, the same year that she was awarded a €2.5m ERC advanced grant.
“ERC grants are unparalleled in their support of discovery science, taking a long-term view to help lay the foundations for the medicines of the future. There’s nothing else quite like them, and any one country would struggle to come up with something that’s as coveted and well-respected by researchers worldwide. The fierce competition for ERC grants undoubtedly boosts European research output across the board.”
Berta Terre Torras, EU postdoc
Berta Terre Torras is a developmental neuroscientist working to understand how the human brain develops. Humans have very large brains relative to our body size, so Berta is working to discover whether specific genes make our brains grow so big.
Berta was recently awarded EU funding through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action fellowship. These prestigious awards cover salary, research and training costs, offering financial independence for the researcher and additional funding for the institute.
“The fellowship is fantastic, both for my science and my career,” says Berta. “The process gave me the opportunity to plan out my research project, and the fellowship provides everything I need to make it happen. As well as the research funding, it offers me the freedom to independently attend conferences and access training opportunities, to meet new people and develop my skills.”
“With the scheme's successful history, everyone knows about it and there is a strong community of past and present fellows. The value of the fellowship goes far beyond the money, it has a strong international reputation which gives a huge boost to my credibility and future career opportunities. It would take years, even decades, for any new programme to build anything like the same profile. If Marie Curie fellowships were not available in the UK, it would be a much less attractive place to do research – and the weather is bad enough!”
Bernard Siow, head of magnetic resonance imaging
Bernard Siow has been partly funded by EU Framework Programmes throughout his scientific career. “The level of collaboration on large European grants, funded by EU Framework Programmes, isn’t replicated in any other mechanism I have been part of. These grants involve the leading research groups in the field working together to solve big problems and advance science. The productive atmosphere in the meetings for these projects is unparalleled, creating an environment in which fellow researchers can be critical in a truly constructive way.”
Bernard’s research focuses on in the development of microstructure imaging techniques using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI). This allows visualisation of structures 1000 times smaller than the resolution of conventional MRI, enabling a plethora of applications such as localisation and grading of tumours, understanding the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, and a better understanding of the learning and ageing processes.
“Perhaps my most enduring memory of being involved in an EU award is a meeting for the CONNECT (Consortium of Neuroimagers for the Noninvasive Exploration of Brain Connectivity and Tractography) programme, funded by an FP7 Collaborative Project award,” says Bernard. “As an early postdoc researcher, the meeting opened my eyes to how collaborative projects can drive forward and stimulate scientific discovery, particularly for difficult and contentious topics. I met leaders in the field and continue to exchange ideas and partner with them today.”
“The EU Framework Programmes have made research more efficient, effective and productive, accelerated scientific progress and fostered further collaboration. This means that the benefits of research impact society sooner. Missing out on the opportunity to be involved in such projects would be a great loss to me and my fellow researchers.”