By now, the early Brexit panic based on assumptions of catastrophe, disaster, and apocalypse, is giving way to more positive attitudes in the science fields. Yes, there are changes coming, sometimes painful, but there are also opportunities for new partnerships, fresh collaborations, and bolder directions.
I was on a month-long visit to the United Kingdom when the Brexit vote took place, immersing me in intense discussions with British researchers who have long-standing partnerships with European universities. The main immediate concerns of senior management at UK universities seem to be the uncertain status of the academics working, or planning to work, in the United Kingdom on European Union passports. They worry about the uncertain future of the considerable collaborative research funded by the EU, students planning to come from or go to the EU, and the status of students, staff, and faculty whose visa status may have to change. These are serious and legitimate concerns.
But university managers could also think about the potential new opportunities. The good news is that students, staff, and faculty have become comfortable in spending time in other labs to learn new methods and pursue new topics. These relationships often produce positive results, but not always. Now it is time to reconsider these choices, working hard to keep the good ones and shedding the weaker ones to try new possibilities.
As a US-based researcher, I hope to build stronger partnerships with colleagues at Southampton, Swansea, Nottingham, University College London, City University London, Edinburgh, Oxford, and other universities where I have visited and spoken in recent years. Having more regular British visitors and supported projects would be a welcome positive step for our lab. The recent announcement of the EPSRC and NSF agreement to allow projects with UK and US collaborators is a useful step. Our Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland had hundreds of post-graduate student applicants from China, India, Korea, etc., but not one from the United Kingdom. I’m eager to change that.
While there will be challenges to obtaining funding and visas, many valuable European collaborations will continue. At the same time, increased possibilities of British collaboration with Commonwealth partners such as Canada and Australia could open up new directions. Increasing collaborations with international leaders such as Brazil, South Africa, China, and India could also stimulate novel projects, such as Swansea University’s FITLab on mobile devices in South Africa and India.
Another positive step is the EPSRC Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology (CASE), which support closer collaboration between academia and industry. These awards enable PhD students to work on problems generated by industrial needs, while carrying out advanced research. When well-designed, these kinds of collaborations are likely to produce the “twin-win” of valuable publications that also are on the fast track to commercialization. Instead of uncertain technology transfer, these twin-win projects can rapidly generate peer-reviewed papers and new or improved commercial products. An encouraging example that I learned about this past month was at the Edinburgh University’s Farr Institute, which pursues health informatics research. The poster at the entrance celebrated their “Innovative Industrial Collaborations: From licensing agreements to joint ventures and research collaboration, we foster partnerships between academic clinicians, medical researchers and industry”. I support the idea that more academics should take on real problems, with real data, and real users.
I believe that ideas developed with industry and civic partners can have the benefit of theories that are validated in the living laboratories of commerce and professional practice. Further support for close collaboration between universities and industry is based on growing evidence that papers co-authored between academics and industry professionals produce higher quality and greater impact than those written by all academics or all industry professionals.
So instead of Brexit panic, it’s time to invoke the inspirational phrase: “Keep Calm and Carry On”, which calls for resilience and resourcefulness in difficult times. Britain has a great tradition of research and academic leadership, so taking on fresh partners can be a hope-filled possibility.
Featured image: Brexit by Foto-Rabe. Public domain via Pixabay.