5 min readBrexit and What It Means for Britain’s Science and Technology Sector
London, UK – With the official results of the EU referendum released this morning, here are some comments from members of Britain’s science and technology community.
The two main subjects of concern for the majority of research institutions and small businesses seem to be immigration and funding.
However, unlike the campaigners of Vote Leave, representatives of the UK research industry are now worried about potential shortages of highly skilled workers employed in the sector as well as the uncertainty about the future EU funding opportunities and currently running projects.
“The implications that are going to arise from the UK leaving the European Union are vast and wide ranging, with an impact expected to be seen across a whole host of areas – we’ve all heard of the changes that a break away will have on topics such as the economy and immigration, however the decision will now lead to the UK suffering from an even greater skills shortage,” says Daniel Kirkpatrick, Team Manager for Scientific and Medical at JAM Recruitment consultancy in Manchester.
Established in 2000, the company has been ranked 20th in the 2014 Recruiter Fast 50 list of the fastest growing private recruitment businesses in the UK. Since then, the consultancy placed over 12,000 professionals into core sectors of the UK engineering, manufacturing and biotechnology sectors.
“Similarly to the other sectors,” explains Kirkpatrick, “the [UK biotechnology] industry is not in a position where we have the trained home-grown workforce that would allow us to continue operating at the cutting edge of scientific development.”
Industrial areas where Britain currently experiences a shortage of workforce are listed on the Government’s Shortage Occupation list, updated every year.
The latest version of the List states shortage of skills in a number of categories such as Physical Scientists, Mechanical, Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IT Specialist Managers, Bioinformaticians, Environmental Professionals, Medical Practitioners and Nurses, Secondary Education Professionals, Social Workers and Paramedics.
The full Shortage Occupation list (latest edition of November 2015) can be access online via this link.
Prof. Neil Hall, Director of one of the UK’s leading bioinformatics institutions, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), comments:
“The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) like all research institutes in the UK, benefits from EU funding but also many of our research staff are non-British EU nationals. Therefore, we currently depend on free-movement to maintain our scientific excellence and competitive edge.
Technology does not observe boundaries and we have been lucky to enjoy an inspiring array of tech from the UK, Europe and even further afield, which we have been able to access and use for the benefit of our customers.
“The ramifications of this decision will depend very much on what will replace what we have now, and I sincerely hope that the government value the UK’s leading position in research and do not hamstring us by restricting collaboration and cooperation across borders.”
Other representatives of UK the science research sphere are more emotional.
“Many scientists and engineers will be disappointed,” says Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering.
“The sector consistently showed huge support for EU membership. Our sector is facing great change with the Higher Education and Research bill currently going through Parliament. And leaving the EU will no doubt have huge additional impact on our universities and research businesses.”
“There is no way I can pretend to be anything other than dispirited and disappointed,” remarks Professor Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Chair of Psychological Medicine and Vice Dean, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, and SMC Board of Trustees Member.
“Whilst I don’t believe that people voted to leave the EU with science and health foremost in their minds, I fear that the consequences for both will be serious over the coming year unless we take firm and decisive action now,” he says.
Academic research, largely collaborative by nature, have been increasingly dependent on the free movement of the workforce across the EU borders.
A recent report by a UK technology company Digital Science showed that research carried out in collaboration with international partners has considerably more impact that that carried out by a single country.
The report also highlights the rapid growth of EU and global collaboration, from less than 10% to more than half of all academic research.
“One of the great strengths of UK research has always been its international nature, and we need to continue to welcome researchers and students from abroad. Any failure to maintain the free exchange of people and ideas between the UK and the international community including Europe could seriously harm UK science,” notes Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, a Fellowship of eminent UK and world scientists.
We are continuing our business as usual work, supporting innovative businesses right across the country. We are working with colleagues in Government and beyond to assess next steps and will communicate further with our customers about any impact on our work as soon as we are able.
Preserving the free movement of people across the UK borders still remains an option, even after the separation process is completed. This would be possible if Britain chose to follow the footsteps of countries such as Switzerland or Norway, both of which are members of the European Economic Area (EEA) but not the EU.
However, as a former foreign minister of Norway, Espen Barth Eide, remarks in his recent opinion piece for the Guardian, “A Britain choosing this track would, in other words, keep paying substantial contributions to the EU budget, it would be “run by Brussels”, and it would remain committed to the four freedoms, including free movement.”
Whether the UK will choose to follow this model still remains unclear.
Another, perhaps an even greater concern about the future of the UK science industry, is access to the EU research grants and funding opportunities for science institutions and small businesses.
“In the past, UK science has been well supported by EU funding. This has been an essential supplement to UK research funds. In the upcoming negotiations we must make sure that research, which is the bedrock of a sustainable economy, is not short changed, and the Government ensures that the overall funding level of science is maintained,” says Professor Ramakrishnan.
The data collected by Digital Science points that the UK risks losing EU research funding to the tune of £1 billion per year. Currently, a quarter of all public funding for research in the UK comes from the European Union. In 2015, the amount of new grant funding awarded to the UK was £967 million.
“[The referendum] outcome provides a real challenge for our sector. Science is an area where the relationship between the UK and the EU was particularly beneficial. Not least because scientists won billions of pounds of research funding for the UK (€8.8bn between 2007 and 2013), above and beyond what we put in,” adds Dr. Main.
Researchers and analysts are now calling out to UK government to ensure that the current levels of investment in the UK science and technology are preserved and the money saved from contributions to the European Union reinvested in the local research activities.
“Digital Science now calls upon the government to commit to maintaining the current funding level at the very least, in order to protect the UK’s research base, so that we don’t become the poor cousin of Europe,” says Dr Daniel Hook, Managing Director of Digital Science and author of, ‘Examining Implications of Brexit for the UK Research Base’.
“To ensure that UK research does not falter and to prevent uncertainty as to whether the UK continues to be a good place to do research, we need as soon as possible a very firm commitment, from the Treasury and BIS, that funding for research, collaboration, training, and mobility will be sustained by a redirection into the science budget of the money previously flowing through Brussels.
“That commitment should be bi-partisan and is needed now, not in two years’, because research is not a volatile market. It absolutely needs those planning horizons and we absolutely need to keep our regional and global links.”
On a more positive note, other members of the UK digital technology sector admit that despite the uncertainty about Britain’s future in the EU, they will continue expanding their businesses internationally. This includes, for instance, opening new branches in other EU member states such as Germany.
“This week we have announced announced an expansion to Berlin, our first international co-working space and this decision was taken well in advance, regardless of the result of yesterday’s EU Referendum,” says David Galsworthy, CEO and Co-Founder of Techspace, a flexible co-working space specifically designed for fast-growth tech scale-up companies.
“While it may seem like a strange time to make such a decision, we felt that whatever way the vote went, whether it be ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, it would have little actual effect on our expansion plans internationally.”