Collaboration in the City

By Edwin Colyer

I am a great fan of delicious irony and it doesn’t get better than this: in just a few days Manchester will welcome thousands of academics from across the EU and beyond to the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF).

There are rumours that registrations are down; the email I received from the organisers earlier this said tickets were still available. Perhaps it’s just our reputation for rain (here’s more irony: it’s currently about 25 degrees and sunny outside), but I wonder if some EU researchers might wonder if there’s much point in forging links within the UK. There’s anecdotal evidence that UK scientists are already being frozen out of EU funding consortia (discrimination that Science Minister Jo Johnson wants to monitor closely); some science-based companies say that Brexit is already making it difficult to recruit from other European countries.

Manchester as a city voted Remain and here the spirit of international openness and inclusivity remains strong. I hope that over the next week this city can prove that partnership is vital and that even without the EU we will still be pioneering a collaborative model for innovation. We will welcome colleagues and partners from across the EU and beyond – now and in the future.

As an Impact and Engagement Manger at Manchester Metropolitan University, I’m reminded every day that science is a team game. Is there any other sector that so actively seeks to collaboration, even in an increasingly competitive environment? Interestingly, it has been EU funding that seems to have driven our international research collaboration and supported closer ties with non-academic stakeholders including businesses and local authorities. Through our involvement in major projects such as CityVerve (piloting Internet of Things applications and infrastructures in the city) or Move-Age (sharing expertise to train 50 PhD students across Europe to study ways to maintain the mobility of older people) we are building strong relationships. Even if the EU funds disappear, there is absolutely no doubt that collaboration will continue.

When I speak with academics here about their work, they invariably list half a dozen colleagues with whom they collaborate, typically across disciplines, sometimes across faculties. Then there are relationships with external stakeholders – they are an essential part of the team too. And I mustn’t forget all the professional support staff – me included – who play their various parts, from writing grant proposals to negotiating licensing deals.

The size of ESOF and the number of people who will come along to ECOS events show just how big the team is. It goes beyond departmental silos, beyond institutional boundaries and crosses over international borders.

It also includes has to involve people beyond academia: businesses, governments and citizens at large, so it is great to see sessions design around how research can solve real-world problems, not just answer esoteric questions. Alongside the main scientific event Science in the City is a programme of public engagement and outreach events: from Exploding Women to an app-based augmented and virtual reality tour of the city’s scientific heritage. Check out the mini-guide and think about a trip here next week.

Brexit might disrupt how science is funded, it may change the rules of engagement. It may even already be excluding scientists from collaborative opportunities. But the principle of partnership will not disappear. In the face of political upheaval and economic doom mongering, I hope you can enjoy the irony that Manchester this summer puts the spotlight on the benefits of openness and cooperation.

Edwin Colyer is the Manchester Metropolitan University Impact and Engagement Manager