Brexit presents major opportunities for researchers – but are we ready to grasp them?

Failure to take action will have long-term negative impact on our relationship with UK

Jane Ohlmeyer

In an age when science knows no borders, what does Brexit mean for researchers in Ireland?

For generations we have studied and collaborated with researchers in UK universities. There is hardly an Irish Horizon 2020 project that does not have a high level of UK participation, with researchers moving freely across national borders.

Brexit could mean that there will be fewer opportunities for collaboration with UK universities and that the mobility of researchers may be restricted. We will also lose a strong ally in EU policy discussions.


While Ireland has a good track record in building coalitions with other countries, the loss of our nearest neighbour at the table in Brussels could well affect future policy development.

Today we can only begin to imagine what the long-term educational, political and cultural consequences of Brexit might be, especially for our relationships with Northern Ireland.

So now is the moment to do everything possible to consolidate north-south relationships, as well as east-west ones.

We can strengthen existing bilateral research and educational agreements between universities and research councils and establish new ones, as well as supporting pan-island research bodies, such as the Royal Irish Academy.

Our politicians need to do everything possible to facilitate continued mobility of students and researchers across these islands, as part of the Common Travel Area, and address the thorny issue of student fees.

The possibility that an Irish student would pay non-EU fees to study in Belfast (or vice versa) is simply chilling (the non-EU fee is at least three times greater than the EU fee).

Education and research have proven to be great integrators and allowed us to build meaningful long-term relationships. Failure to take action over the coming months could have very negative long-term repercussions for our relationships – economic, cultural and political – with the UK and especially with Northern Ireland.

Though we continue to wish that it might not happen, Brexit does bring opportunities for Irish researchers. The UK draws down twice what it contributes in research funding; there is thus a possibility of an increase in the overall amount of EU funding available.

We can maximise our opportunities as an English-speaking country and do all we can to attract the best talent – researchers and students – from across Europe and the world.  If Ireland is to be the "destination of choice", our universities need to establish themselves as the "partners of choice" for EU Horizon 2020 research applications, including the highly prestigious and competitive European Research Council grants.

In this ever-changing world, innovative approaches are essential. For example, we could also explore the possibility of joint academic appointments with top UK universities, which would enable these researchers to hold their EU grants in Ireland. This would have the added advantage of helping to boost the global rankings of Irish universities.

Enabling our universities to act as talent magnets requires investment in infrastructure through schemes such as the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, which has been in abeyance since 2010.

In order to attract and retain the best talent we also need to create a more balanced research ecosystem. Currently Ireland only spends 4.3 per cent of direct government funding on basic frontiers research in comparison to 17 per cent by the EU, so the time has now come for significant investment in frontiers research across all disciplines.

Commitments like these will send out the strong message that Ireland is back in business after a decade of austerity and wants to be a global leader in research and innovation.

Though we have not wished for it, Brexit affords a unique set of opportunities. The challenge we now face – especially our politicians, government departments, universities and research agencies – is to realise these opportunities in a co-ordinated fashion and in a way that strengthens research relationships with the UK.

* Jane Ohlmeyer is chair of the Irish Research Council, director of the Trinity Long Room Hub and the Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity