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Johnson earmarks £100m to attract top researchers to UK

Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has announced a global talent research fund to attract highly skilled researchers to the UK.

Speaking at the launch of UK Research and Innovation’s strategy on 4 July, Johnson said the £100-million fellowship pot would be called the Rutherford Fund.

Precise details of the fund, such as the timing and application process were not available by the time this article was published.

What we know is that the fund is named after Ernest Rutherford, the physicist and Nobel laureate who came to the UK from New Zealand. Rutherford's status as an “immigrant” exemplifies the government’s vision of a Britain “open to the best minds and ideas in the world”, Johnson said.

The money will come from the £4.7-billion commitment for research and innovation outlined in the 2016 autumn statement, Johnson said.

The fund will provide fellowships for early-career and senior researchers from the developed world and from what he called “emerging research powerhouses”, such as India, China, Brazil and Mexico. It will be administered jointly by the UK’s national academies and UKRI.

“The fund will send a strong signal that, even as the UK leaves the European Union, we remain open to the world, more so than ever and reinforce our ambition to make the UK the go to nation for innovation and discovery,” Johnson said.

Johnson was a late inclusion at an event that had been billed as the first major speech from Mark Walport, chief executive of UKRI.

Walport, who spoke after Johnson, outlined his vision for the research councils’ umbrella body, which he said was going to be the “best research and innovation agency in the world”.

Earlier, in an interview with the BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, Walport reiterated that the Haldane principle was safe under his hands and that UKRI would not wish to direct the questions that researchers may want to ask.

UKRI, according to Walport, will operate under three pillars: knowledge, economy and society. He added that the agency needed to accept that it would be operating at a time when both science and society are experiencing great change. It will tackle fundamental and applied questions, he said, and support the brightest minds, recognising that they come in many diverse forms.

He added that the UK badly needed an infrastructure roadmap so that researchers and innovators are able to do their work in the most effective way. This he said was something UKRI had already started working on.

Within the research environment itself Walport said that UKRI would work to tackle issues around the reproducibility of research, openness, communication and public engagement, as well as diversity within research careers.

Responding to questions on the balance of funding between research and innovation and between the different disciplines, Walport said that UKRI and the government would be thinking carefully about the relative weighting for each strand.

This suggests that the balance may yet tilt slightly further in favour of more innovation and more cross disciplinary work. However, he reiterated that it would be counterproductive if this were to happen at the expense of fundamental work.

Walport added that the issue of funding across disciplines had been “ducked” in the past but the UK’s “fossilised” funding system across disciplines had to be addressed.


Europe > Horizon 2020


Framework programme set to go global

Expert group recommends widening association to FP9

Framework 9 should be opened up to countries beyond Europe’s neighbours so that the EU can benefit more from global talent, a group of insiders has said.

An expert group appointed by the European Commission to provide a vision for the Framework programme’s future said EU research funds should be accessible to associate members further away, such as Australia and Canada. In a report published on 3 July, the group, chaired by former World Trade Organization director-general Pascal Lamy, said this would be "a step change" in opening up the programme.

"Association of non-EU countries to future EU [Framework] programmes should be governed by excellence in research and innovation, not confined to a particular part of the world," the report recommended.

Associate countries gain full participation in exchange for a budget contribution based on their GDP. In Horizon 2020, association was limited to countries in the vicinity of Europe. Sixteen countries are associated, including Israel and Turkey.

Wealthy third countries, such as Australia, Canada, the United States and China, can participate in Horizon 2020, but have to fund their own individual projects or set up specific co-funding. This change from Framework 7, which was more lenient on spending internationally, has resulted in third-country participation in Horizon 2020 open calls dropping by about half, to a mere 1.8 per cent.

Carlos Moedas, the research commissioner, revealed last month that the Commission had already been discussing the possibility of association with Canadian representatives. At the launch of the group’s report, he favourably quoted a previous assertion of Lamy’s that "the world needs Europe to civilise globalisation", underlining this global perspective.

The mandate of the group of 12 research and innovation specialists from across academia and industry was to suggest a vision for the future of the Framework programme to maximise its impact. Its report will inform the 2018-20 work programme for Horizon 2020 and set the scene for a debate on Framework 9, which is due to start in 2021.

The group made 11 overarching recommendations. One was that Europe's education system needed to "systematically embed innovation and entrepreneurship, starting from early stage school curricula".

The report said universities "need urgent renewal to stimulate entrepreneurship and tear down disciplinary borders". Future Framework programmes should provide incentives for this, it said. Universities that promote open science, open innovation and being open to the world—Moedas’s three priorities for his term—could be recognised and rewarded.

The League of European Research Universities pushed back against this in a statement. Leru said it broadly agreed with the report, but would prefer open science at universities to be stimulated through Framework 9’s rules of participation. "It is important to not overly complicate the Framework programme. Mission drift should be avoided," Leru said.

The expert group wants to retain the three-pillar structure of Horizon 2020, dividing funding into science and skills, innovation and competitiveness, and global challenges. The global challenges should support large-scale interdisciplinary missions with non-prescriptive calls, based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it said.

In addition, a "substantial proportion" of structural and agricultural funds should finance research and innovation aligned with the programme’s objectives. State aid rules should be revised to help.

Framework 9 should receive a minimum budget of €120 billion for seven years, €45bn more than Horizon 2020. Doubling the Horizon 2020 budget to about €160bn would be "the best investment the EU could make", the experts said.

Mailis Reps, minister for education and research in Estonia, which took over the EU presidency on 1 July, said that increased funding should be seen as an investment.

This article also appeared in Research Europe


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Europe > Politics


Funding alone will not prevent Brexit brain drain, event hears

Italian researchers in the UK have called on the British government and institutions to change their stance on immigration to retain EU talent after Brexit.

The annual conference of the Association of Italian Scientists in the UK, held at King’s College London on 30 June, discussed the impact that the UK’s vote to leave the EU is having on some of the approximately 5,800 Italian researchers employed by British universities.

Anna Randi, head of vascular science at Imperial College London’s National Heart & Lung Institute, said that the UK’s scientific institutions have done very little to fight British politicians’ anti-migrant positions. Graeme Reid, science policy chair at University College London, said that UK ministers’ speeches since the vote “have been quite aggressive and unpleasant” on immigration.

Randi also lamented what she saw as an excessive focus on research funding, which the government has increased, and on EU citizens’ rights. “We are by definition a mobile community and therefore it is not all about the money given to us, it is about the environment. We are not worried about being allowed to stay here, we are worried about the fact that we may not want to stay in this wonderful country,” she said.

Other Italian researchers in Britain have expressed similar feelings. Twenty seven per cent of the 637 respondents to a survey of Italian academics carried out last month by the Italian embassy in the UK answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Are you thinking about leaving the UK?’. A further 55 per cent answered ‘Maybe’, while just 18 per cent said ‘No’.

Forty one per cent of respondents reported that Brexit has had negative effects on their work, while 40 per cent suggested there had been indirect effects. The main negative impacts reported were a decreasing number of PhD applications from EU students, a general sense of insecurity and demoralisation, clear episodes of discrimination, difficulties participating in Horizon 2020 consortia, and exclusions from directing EU-funded projects.

Antonio Guarino, professor of economics at University College London and president of the Association of Italian Scientists in the UK, told Research Europe that the survey results had to be taken with a pinch of salt because the respondents were not a representative sample. “Moreover, the survey asked about intentions, and there is a big difference between intentions and actual plans to move,” he said.

However, an Italian senior professor attending the event who wanted to remain anonymous said he was applying for a grant from the European Research Council and looking for a host university “in any other EU country” than the UK. He said he had already applied for positions in the Netherlands.

Guarino added that the negative consequences of Brexit for UK research, such as brain drain, could provide benefits for other EU national research systems if governments advanced proposals to attract researchers. “Frankly speaking, so far we have not seen concrete reactions from the other European systems,” he said.

Discussions in Italy have focused on creating some chairs to attract back Italians from overseas, but Guarino said the focus should not only be on Italians. “We don’t want a particular route to go back to Italy, that is not the point. The Italian scientists will return when all scientists may be interested in going there. You can't create a top department with just Italians.”

Leaving Britain does not necessarily mean returning to Italy, according to the survey results. Of those who said they were planning to leave the UK, 57 per cent had another EU country in mind, versus 29 per cent who wanted to return to Italy. The remaining 15 per cent preferred a non-EU country.

The vice-president of the UK’s Royal Society, Julie Maxton, tried to reassure the event audience by saying that the society’s council was set to debate detailed advice to the UK government on developing an immigration system for researchers and engineers that looks “as similar as possible” to freedom of movement.


Europe > France


France considers REF style assessment as austerity looms

Funding for French universities should be tied to an evaluation of their performance to increase efficiency and reduce the bulging national budget deficit, the French Court of Auditors has recommended.

In its annual report on the state of the country’s public finances, the court proposed several cost-saving measures in higher education to get France’s faltering deficit reduction programme back on track. France will be €8 billion short on its deficit reduction target at the end of the year if an “unprecedented effort” is not taken, the report, published on 29 June, warned.

Prime minister Édouard Philippe responded immediately to the court’s findings. He told a press conference the same day that France would still meet its eurozone commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of GDP “with cost-saving measures and without raising taxes”.

Philippe is expected to outline these measures in a speech to the National Assembly on 4 July.

In its report, the court singled out higher education and research as an area where savings could be made. In particular, it said university funding arrangements were “uneven” and “based on historic legacies”. France should instead move to a system where universities were allocated funding every five years based on “an in-depth audit of each institution and a model that takes into account activity and performance”, the court said.

The court’s recommendation chimes with president Emmanuel Macron’s election manifesto, in which he promised a closer link between university funding and performance. Audits should focus “exclusively on hard outcomes and results within research units and on training programmes”, Macron said in his manifesto.

At present, university audits are intended to inform budget allocations. However, HCERES, France’s higher education and research evaluation agency, is not allowed to award marks to universities—meaning that there is no direct link between evaluations and funding allocations.

The court also pointed to the rising cost of university “teacher-researchers” (a specialist status in France). Teacher-researchers are meant to split their time equally between teaching and research, but the balance has slipped strongly in favour of the latter, the report said.

This has led to greater costs, as universities have had to spend extra on teaching that should have been carried out by the teacher-researchers. The court said that teacher-researchers should be brought back into line with their contractual obligations.

The court also criticised the high cost of partnerships between universities, grandes écoles and research institutions. These partnerships lead too often to bureaucratic duplication rather than the pooling of shared resources as intended, the court said.

France’s science budget has risen by 29 per cent in the past 10 years to €26.7bn in 2017, which is not sustainable in the long-term, the court said. With student numbers on the rise, the government should look at raising tuition fees, it recommended.

The court also said that the 2017 budget drawn up by former president François Hollande’s government had been “insincere” in its forecasts, which was the reason for the €8 billion shortfall. Philippe said the government had been left in an “unacceptable” situation by its predecessors.


Anti-Trump climate pitch is working, minister says

Make Our Planet Great Again, the French government’s scheme to attract top climate researchers has attracted more than 3,000 applications, according to research minister Frédérique Vidal.

Vidal told the website EducPros on 3 July that the response from international researchers “far exceeded expectations”.

She also said that the German government was interested in joining the initiative, which was launched in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement.

The government has allocated €30 million to the scheme over the next five years, and it will be run by the CNRS, France's largest public research institution. The money will work as match funding—for every €1 that the CNRS-affiliated lab spends on the new recruit, the government will contribute €1.

Thierry Valentin, deputy director of Campus France, a government body that promotes French higher education overseas, said the call “would bring in excellent international researchers to work alongside French researchers…these people will enliven and internationalise our research teams”.

The scheme has been criticised by some French researchers who have said that the money would be better spent on resources for climate researchers already in France.


France forms united front to attract international students

French universities, grandes écoles and engineering schools have joined forces to call on the government to boost France’s standing as a destination for overseas students and researchers.

The CPU, France’s association of university presidents, and the CGE and Cdefi, who represent France’s grandres écoles and engineering schools, respectively, outlined six measures they said were necessary for France to keep up with its international competitors in higher education.

Two of the recommendations called on the government to fund more programmes that would raise France’s attractiveness. Government grants for overseas students have been cut from €133 million in 2004 to €71m in 2016, and the associations called for a reversal of this trend.

The group, which published its proposals on 3 July, also said that the government should launch a concerted effort to promote France to international students. It mentioned the UK government’s Education is Great Britain campaign as the kind of “dynamic marketing” they would like to see.

Two of the recommendations asked the government to simplify application and administration procedures for students and researchers.

Finally, the associations said that more should also be done to encourage French students’ international mobility.

Jean-Luc Nahel, the president of Rouen University and international activities coordinator for the CPU, told the EducPros website on 3 July that France was no longer just competing against the United States and other European countries. “Excellence is no longer enough to attract foreign students,” he said. “We need policies that will make us better known and improve our capacity to host people.”


UK > Politics


Ministers pledge commitment to EU medicines deal

UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt and business secretary Greg Clark have said that the government is keen to continue working with the European Union on medicines regulation.

In an unusual move, the the ministers pledged in a letter to The Financial Times that they wish to develop a post-Brexity regulatory system in partnership with the EU.

The letter, which was published on 4 July, suggests that both Clark and Hunt may be signalling that they will take the lead on negotiating medicines regulation, rather than the Department for Exiting the European Union, which is headed by David Davies.

“Our aim is to ensure that patients in the UK and across the EU continue to be able to access the best and most innovative medicines and be assured that their safety is protected through the strongest regulatory framework and sharing of data,” they said.

The ministers acknowledged that if the UK is unable to secure this, then the priority will be to continue processing licenses as quickly as possible and to offer competitive fee licensing in line with current levels, they wrote.

The letter includes three principles for developing a new regulatory system. These are to ensure that: patients aren’t disadvantaged; businesses can quickly export products to the UK market; and the UK continues to be a leader in promoting public health.

In achieving these, the ministers said the UK should support EU initiatives that will lead to the next step in product development, particularly in medical research, scientific collaboration, big data and genomics.

The letter follows fears that the relocation of the European Medicines Agency could cause delays in drug delivery to patients. 

European nations are bidding to host the EMA and have failed to agree on its new home. Research Fortnight has reported that the decision—due to be made on 20 June—has been postponed until November.

Hunt and Clark said drug development was a “global business” and confirmed they were aiming to work with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the European Medicines Agency.  

The letter was rounded off with a final plea. “Our door will always be open to a deep and special relationship with the EU which remains the best way to promote improved patient outcomes both in Europe and globally.”


DCMS gets a ‘digital’ rebrand

The UK government has added digital to the name of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, making it the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The government will continue to refer to the department as the DCMS, it announced on 3 July.

Karen Bradley, secretary of state for the department, said the move reflected its changed role as its policy and delivery work spanned the digital sphere. For example, the DCMS covers telecommunications, data protection, internet safety and cyberskills.

“The traditional core of DCMS remains as important as ever, covering arts, culture, the creative industries, sport, tourism, heritage, gambling, boosted by responsibility for civil society, charities, volunteering and innovative financing to create an inclusive economy,” Bradley said. 


UK > Politics > Whitehall


Turing Institute announces defence and security partnership

The Alan Turing Institute is to collaborate on data-science research with the UK's intelligence listening agency GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence.

Mark Briers, who has been appointed as the strategic programme director for defence and security at the institute, will lead the research and collaboration and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and Joint Forces Command will take part, the institute announced on 28 June.

The partnership will focus on data-science methodologies and techniques. Other areas of joint interest will be research into intelligent data systems, securing cyberspace, data privacy and trust.

Briers said in a statement: The programme will solve challenges from social data science, cybersecurity and urban analytics, and will be underpinned by theoretical and methodological enhancements from across the data science technical spectrum.”

The partnership will also include engagement with academics and with the security industry.


UK > Research Councils


Davies challenges researchers to justify 'excluding' genomics

England’s chief medical officer Sally Davies wants medical research funders to require applicants to justify any decision to exclude genomics in their applications.

No further details on the new requirement on researchers have been provided. It was included in the chief medical officer's annual report Generation Genome, published on 4 July. However, the intention seems to be to make genomic analysis a mainstream technique across all of health research, and not just a minority interest.

The instruction carries echoes of Davies' earlier decision to make Athena Swan accreditation a condition of grants from the National Institute for Health Research--a move that has helped to make diversity more of a priority for university departments.  

The report also included further plans to reform the genomics field in the UK.

Among them, are plans to set up a National Genomics Board, chaired by a minister. This would oversee patient and public interest; genomic research; industrial development and regulation. In addition, it could deal with priorities—not defined in the report—linked to NHS England and Genomics England Partnership. 

The report also called for all genomics laboratories to be centralised with a national network, yet to be established, ensuring equal access to services across the UK.

Davies said in the report: “Genomic medicine has huge implications for the understanding and treatment of rare diseases, cancer and infections—ending the ‘diagnostic odyssey’ and tailoring treatment for more patients than ever before.”

According to Davies, patients with cancer or a rare disease should have access to genomics-based care, while genomics should be a standard approach to healthcare.

Other research-related plans aim to bridge the gap between genomics researchers and patients.

For example, Davies recommends that Genomics England, NHS England and the Human Tissue Authority look at how existing NHS patients can be enrolled in the 100,000 Genomes Project and relevant clinical trials with stored tissue samples.

Similarly; the report urges the Department of Health to form a group to agree on a national two-stage routine consent model that enables medics to re-contact patients to enrol in research studies and clinical trials.

The group, Davies suggests, should include Genomics England, NHS England, the Health Research Authority, academia and civil society.

Funding for researchers would also need to be increased, she said. In particular, the report argues that the government’s life sciences strategy should fund the digital infrastructure needed to enable clinical trials that embed genomics to thrive in the UK.

This, she said, would increase learning with more opportunities to carry out re-analysis of studies and to pool genomic information.


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