Brexit? Science should never be constrained by borders

He still does not believe that Brexit will happen. “If Britain finally leaves the European Union, we have to use it for finding new ways of working together,” says President of the European University Association Rolf Tarrach. Still he sees a hope for European research in general: in young scientists. Wherever they come from.

In February 2016, before the British referendum, in a commentary published in the Times Higher Education magazine, Rolf Tarrach wrote: “Universities are essential in shaping our future. There is no great future for either a Europe without the UK or a UK outside Europe.” A few months later, the United Kingdom voted “Leave”.

How did you feel after referendum result was announced?
Surprised and bad. If Brexit happens eventually it will be bad for everybody, but I still do not believe it will happen. But if I am wrong, which might well be the case, then we have to aim at being better, so that nothing comparable happens again.

Which standpoint does EUA take now, after two years of negotiations and with just over four months until Britain leaves the EU?
Our goal at EUA is to make sure that in the academic and research world nothing changes, or if something has to change that we use it for finding new ways of working together. Science and knowledge should never be constrained by borders and petty, visionless politics.

Let’s assume Brexit will happen in March 2019 as planned. What do you think European universities should focus on first?
Aiming at being better, publishing less but in a more relevant and reproducible manner, being more open, and going on collaborating with our British colleagues.

Do you think that connections between the UK and continental universities will become closer, because, as the same basic academic principles apply everywhere, there is no other way – Brexit or no Brexit?
I believe in the creativity of young researchers, so I am sure that they will go on working together in the cleverest way. How they will do it in concrete terms, I have no idea.

Is it possible Brexit will damage UK universities (27 of the first 35 universities in the THE World University Rankings are British or US, the other 3 being from continental Europe)?
Yes, it will, but they will minimize damage effectively.

And what about European research without the British? Do you think European research will be less competitive in the rest of the world?
Yes, a bit. And I say it with sadness.

Until 2020, universities will see a few guarantees, but collaboration remains unclear for the long term. Do you think this remaining uncertainty will endanger quality European and British research?
Uncertainty in funding and regulations are a pain in the neck for research, but a crisis is an opportunity for reform and improvement.

Does EUA plan to apply pressure or take action to convince the European Commission to find an alternative to the Erasmus Programme or Horizon after 2020?
I am in my last half year as EUA president and there will be a profound renewal of the Board, so I do not know what EUA will be doing in one year’s time, but I do not think that Europe’s successful programs should be changed because of Brexit. They were not the cause of Brexit! We have universities from 46 European countries among our members. We will not change because of Brexit, as we hope that our British members will stay with us and continue to exchange experience and practices with their colleagues from the other 45 countries. What we do is to learn together, and learning is impervious to politics.

Britain has long been taking out far more research funding from Europe than it has been putting in. Do you think Brexit may result in an opportunity for continental universities to attract the best scientists for themselves, because they have more money to offer, and for them to cooperate more closely?
There will be some brain drain from the UK to the EU, but not for the best reason; they should come because the conditions are getting better here, not because they are getting worse there.

At the end, please allow me to refer to your personal background. You have lived and worked across Europe. You were born in Spain, have worked in Switzerland, and have been Rector of the trilingual University of Luxembourg. One reason for Brexit is fear of immigration. What do you think about the rising tendency to fear people who migrate, including for reasons of science?
We are all the result of our genes and our circumstances, i.e. education, friends, family, culture, luck and opportunities, so it is normal to have a diversity of ways of looking at immigration. I do not have national feelings, I have friends all over the world, and in some sense I have always been a migrant myself. But there are people I do not understand at all – mainly fanatic, irrational believers in something which to me is absurd. When immigrants are of this type, I do not like them, just as I do not like locals who are of this type. Scientific economists, historians and sociologists tell us that mostly immigration is beneficial for the host country. But feelings do not care much about knowledge, unfortunately. I remain an optimist, because I believe in young people, wherever they come from. And, with a grain of hubris, I bet that I am right!