On a wonderfully sunny afternoon this March, there was a party in Corpus Christi College to celebrate the 10th birthday of the European Research Council (ERC). In case it has passed you by in all the noise about the Brexit vote, the ERC is the EU’s pioneering research funding agency. In the past decade, it has disbursed E12 billion and created jobs for 50,000 researchers, with a distinctive focus on blue-skies, excellence-driven research questions – the UK has been the most successful of all EU member states in winning these fiercely competitive grants, and the single institution which has won the most ERC funding is Oxford University.
So it is no surprise that, as we gathered to toast the ERC’s next decade (or century!) the UK’s Brexit vote was the ghost at the feast. We watched a video birthday message recorded by Oxford University for the ERC: somewhat bitter-sweet. Grant-holders, post-docs and senior university staff enjoyed canapes and drinks beneath the portrait of Corpus’ founder, Bishop Richard Foxe (d.1528), fittingly enough a patron of the international scholarship of the European Renaissance. Presiding over the event was Professor Alistair Buchan, Oxford’s Brexit Strategy tsar. One of the key demands put to the UK government by British universities is that it preserve our access to the EU’s world-leading research funding programme: the current success of the UK’s top universities has been built with international talent and, in no small measure, with pooled European funds. This is a shared British and European achievement, across science, social science and humanities alike.
The fears at the party were in part, of course, about money: we heard from heads of departments whose budgets risk (to use a current phrase) falling off a cliff if ongoing access to the ERC is denied. But it is about much more than money, as speakers at the party so passionately conveyed. ERC funding brings to Oxford and the UK a vibrant population of postdocs from all over the world; it enables us to ask cutting-edge questions without being forced to shoe-horn these into the often politicised agendas set out by national funding bodies; its grants are so large that their impact on a field, or in creating a field, can be transformative; in setting such high standards for new ideas, it raises standards everywhere, with a ‘halo effect’.
Research funding on this scale, of this ambition, is an obvious good in itself, generating knowledge, discoveries and international dialogue at an accelerated rate, to the benefit of very many people across the globe – there are ERC-funded British-led projects in the Amazon and Antarctica. But, to speak in different terms, the dozens of ERC grants which have come to Oxford have also poured millions in the local economy – creating jobs for researchers and administrators, creating business for local hotels, caterers and conference facilities, with all the people whom they in turn employ. I think of the voter I met on the streets of Oxford on June 23rd, who was open mouthed to hear that the EU awarded so much money to the university, or that the UK won more money out of this scheme than we paid in.
So at Corpus we thanked the ERC, and over drinks crossed our fingers that this door was not about to be slammed in our face – that this community of British, European and international talent in that medieval hall, in a small city near the middle of England, would find a way forward, would not dissipate or disperse, not allow the impoverishment of its intellectual vision and international horizons, not resign itself to an externally-imposed decline. One-to-one, we had conversations about managing uncertainty, contingency planning – and about speaking truth to power, whether loudly or sotto voce. Because if we do not, who will?