Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.

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Digital Economy Bill – the impact of Brexit

By Steven McGinty

On the 18th March, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. This included the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation which aims to ensure the UK is a world leader in digital provision.

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. The UK has unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister has stood down, leaving a leadership contest in the Conservative Party. And many are uncertain about the future direction of the country.

In this article, I’ll outline the Digital Economy Bill, highlight some of the early commentary, as well as comment on the new political landscape the Bill now finds itself in.

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill focuses on five main areas. These include:

Fast broadband

The Bill introduces a ‘Broadband Universal Service Obligation’, providing all citizens and businesses with the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed (of at least 10Mbps initially). This is similar to the telephone landline obligation which currently exists.

There is also an emphasis on cutting the costs and improving the processes for building broadband infrastructure. However, at this stage, there is very little detail on how this might be achieved, apart from introducing a new Electronic Communication Code and making changes to the planning system.


New powers will be given to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, which will enable them to request data, such as broadband speeds data, which will help consumers in choosing a provider. The Bill also attempts to make it easier for consumers to switch provider and to receive compensation when things go wrong.

Data sharing

Public bodies will be given powers to share information in an effort to combat fraud, which costs the country billions every year. For example, the cost of tax fraud was estimated to be £15 billion in 2011. Other notable measures include encouraging the use of data to provide better public services and identifying and helping people with debts at an earlier stage.

Intellectual property rights

The new Bill recognises that it’s important to support digital industries by addressing the difference in online/offline copyright laws. In addition, the process of registering copyright should be easier and cheaper.

Unsolicited Marketing

Consumers will be given further protection against spam emails and nuisance calls.

Early commentary  

TechUK, industry body for the digital sector, has welcomed the new Bill, highlighting that if implementation is successful, the measures will play an important role in growing the UK’s digital economy. They do, however, note the need for careful consideration when making changes to the planning system and the Electronic Communication Code, alongside stressing the need to ensure changes to copyright law are technically feasible.

Geoff French, chairman of the Enterprise M3 Local Economic Partnership, has also welcomed the advantages the new Bill could bring to business. He highlights that there are still too many urban and rural areas that have low broadband speeds, affecting the growth of the digital economy, as well as the innovation, productivity and competitiveness of the wider economy.

Brendan O’Reilly, Chief Technology Officer at O2 UK, suggests that the planning system needs to be streamlined to allow the expansion of the network. He explains that the process of deploying a mast can take up to three years from start to finish. To emphasis his point, he contrasts the situation in the UK with that in South Korea, where three months to deployment of a mast is considered a long time. And although the new Bill may provide for this change, he highlights the need for collaboration between government and industry, and to think more of ‘UK plc’.

Landowners, however, have been less positive about the new Bill. Under new proposals, landowners would receive ‘compensation’ for masts located on their property; as opposed to the current system where they receive ‘market rate’. As Strutt & Parker telecoms specialist Robert Paul explains, this could mean landowners who used to receive £7,000-£8,000/year, would instead receive £200-£300/year, if classed as compensation. Mr Paul suggests that this could result in landowners taking their case to tribunals, with the result being expensive and time consuming legal challenges to the deployment of masts.

The elephant in the room – Techxit?  

Before the referendum result was announced, Ed Vaizey, UK digital economy minister, stated that there would be a ‘significant economic impact’ if we voted to leave the EU, with uncertainty affecting investment decisions in the UK.

Although it’s too soon to comment on whether this is the case, there has been some notable reaction since the UK voted to leave the EU. Firstly, Ed Vaizey has stated that progressing the Digital Economy Bill will not be delayed as a consequence of the result. However, unconfirmed reports (reported in the media) have suggested that the Bill may have to have its contents altered.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that the telecoms industry has been negatively affected by the result, with revenue forecasts being reduced from 29% to 23% by 2020. They highlight, though, that the Digital Economy Bill is still likely to contain regulation that supports increased investment, and that Brexit may even lead to a more favourable investment environment. Yet, the EIU also notes that other broadband targets, such as the elimination of rural ‘not-spots’ may be deemed less important.

At the moment, the reforms in the Digital Economy Bill are still on the agenda. But it’s not clear how future changes will affect its progress. For instance, issues such as the free movement of skilled professionals, the UK’s position in the single market, and the impact on investment for start-ups are all sources of uncertainty.

The Knowledge Exchange will monitor the Bill’s progress as it receives parliamentary scrutiny.

The Digital Economy Bill was introduced into Parliament on 5 July 2016.

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