Funding research for a better world

The EPC was honoured to welcome former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore to delivered a speech as part of our 2021/22 Annual Congress on the theme of ‘A Better World’. This is the text of his speech.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I feel honoured, yet at the same time daunted, that as a historian, you have given me this platform of addressing this annual congress of Engineering Professors.

I must confess it is that same mixed feeling of guilt and shame, call it imposter syndrome if you like, that one feels as a Minister, speaking to any assembled gathering of experts in their field, who know far more than I could ever hope to know about both your respective discipline and its research, than I could even possibly conceive.

Yet while I may call from the arts and humanities side of the tracks, I have a long-held admiration for engineering, having broken an equally long-standing family tradition of becoming an engineer. My grandfather began his career at an early age at Rolls Royce in Filton, while my father followed him into British Aerospace, working on Concorde, before branching out into medical physics and obtaining his Physics doctorate in doppler ultrasound, establishing his own medical technology company and winning the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal back in 2000. 

As a result, I’ve witnessed first-hand the trials, frustrations, wrong turnings of a family small business working in R&D over the past four decades. I’ve seen and recognised the barriers that prevent research projects from ever getting off the ground. 

Above all, I grew up recognising that engineering at its essence, was about problem solving— not merely the theoretical or the practical, but also the day to day reality of making things— whether a product or business— work. 

Today, you have set me an enigma of a problem to solve. How can we ‘research for a better world’?

A better world is one which we all of course always strive for, indeed it has always been the goal of governments and societies past, but perhaps in my lifetime, the need for a better world brings with it more meaning and urgency than I can remember. 

It is the nature of the human condition to seek hope in despair, to look forwards and not backwards, and to find meaning out of times that can seem incomprehensible. 

So we find ourselves, as previous generations have done, seeking to ‘rebuild’, or in that phrase du jour, ‘build back better’. 

In the wake of the pandemic, post-Covid recovery the almost the sole focus of governments, a mission that one could have scarcely understood 18 months ago when I was still Research Minister. 

The importance of research has been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been our guiding light out of the tunnel.

Of course, the world still turns, hospitals and schools need to function, welfare needs to be provided, but while the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, we have yet to experience the aftershocks that it has caused, from economic recession and a GDP fall that has not been matched for centuries, a fall in educational achievement to a falling birth rate and its impact upon future society. These are problems that not just current politicians will have to grapple with, but I suspect future generations also, not least when we also will have to address the historic levels of debt and the yawning deficit that once again will hang around our economies, hindering their effectiveness to deliver economic growth and future prosperity. 

In this new age, we need to recognise that priorities will change, as competing demands are made on more limited resources. Already we are witnessing calls for increased spending, at a time when a pathway to fiscal constraint will also need to be set. And with any competing demand, choices will need to be made. How those choices are chosen will be determined by the value, both in terms of economically but also to society, placed upon them by policy makers and governments.

The importance of research to our economy and society should have been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been research that has proved to be our guiding light out of the tunnel. Vaccination programmes, antivirals and medication to tackle COVID has demonstrated how research not only transforms lives, it saves lives too. If there is one positive to be drawn from this dark past year, it has been the improved recognition that R&D matters.

Yet equally, scepticism to scientific advice, combined with anxieties over lockdown, has highlighted that the research community must always work to demonstrate impact, to take wider society and the general public with them. Narratives matter. How they are woven, out of the threads of people’s hopes and fears, facts and figures, stories and examples, determines how successful campaigns can be. And the need for more research will always be one long campaign that never ends. 

Even before the pandemic broke, the government allied its own narrative of a post-Brexit Britain to the future facing, change making potential that R&D investment can bring, with its call to fashion the UK as a ‘global science superpower’. The commitment to spend 2.4% GDP by 2027 on R&D was of course made in the Industrial Strategy White Paper back in 2017, but the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. I have spend considerable time already analysing how we might achieve the ‘Road to 2.4%’ in a 30,000 word lecture series I gave in 2019, and do not wish to repeat myself, though for me perhaps the most pressing fact I can relate today is that on 13 July, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. 

This year’s Innovation strategy and the investment made in the Spending Review in R&D will be a critical indicator of whether we will reach the 2.4% target. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2% of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. 

I have come to doubt whether 2.4% will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming.

Now is the time to double down, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4%, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s. Innovation rich countries are pulling ahead even further. The US and China are heading towards 3% GDP, Japan spends 3.2%, Germany is planning to reach 4%, South Korea is already at 4.5% and Israel higher still at 4.9%. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4% strategy has risen to probably over 2.6%. 

The pandemic and other nations response to how to build economic recovery will only lead to a widening gap in R&D performance if we do not step up. “In order to win the 21st century economy” President Biden has stated, “America must get back to investing in the researchers, laboratories, and universities across our nation”. He is calling on Congress to make an $180 billion investment that will both advance U.S. leadership in critical technologies and upgrade America’s research infrastructure” and “establish the United States as a leader in climate science, innovation, and R&D”. Similar commitments marrying increased investment in innovation and technology with clean growth and combatting climate change are being made across Germany, South Korea, China and Singapore.  

Nine years ago, I wrote a chapter in a book making the case that innovation should be placed at the centre of ‘Britannia Unchained’. The success of ‘Global Britain’ now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest for the Innovation Strategy that a definite timetable is set for 3%, and beyond to 3.5%. To fail to achieve this over the next two decades will be setting ourselves up to fail. 

Yet with any strategy, risk of simply being left behind as the world transitions its economies towards more modern, technological approaches in which R&D lies the centre, is not the only narrative that must be woven. At every stage, the threat of inaction or slow progress needs to be balanced with the positive, transformational, human message of why investment in R&D is so important, if the taxpayer and general public are to understand the importance of research. Important not only for companies who wish to remain agile and market dominant, important not only for new job creation, but why R&D is important to someone living in Hartlepool or Doncaster. It’s a question that I have continued to grapple with outside of government having agreed to co-chair the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into levelling up research funding. For myself, I have long believed that investment in translational research conducted in places such as our catapult networks such as the Advanced Manufacturing Catapult is where change could be delivered: with a budget of under £250million a year, this is less than a tenth of what Germany spends on its Fraunhofer institutes. By combining additional investment with a commitment to work lower down the supply chain, and to ally skills programmes with new catapult centres, the impact that research can have creating new jobs at every skill level could be felt. 

People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential.

Low level productivity and a skills deficit remain one of the greatest barriers to ‘levelling up’ across the country, which cannot be achieved by investment in capital alone. People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential. And I’m not just talking about the 200,000 new jobs that will need to be created through the expansion of R&D activity, but the wider ecosystem and supply chain of jobs that are created through the application of new technologies or new materials.  

We cannot divorce the activities of researchers from the wider skills pipeline that needs to be created if we are to meet 2.4%: skills training offers the best possible means to increase productivity, yet our SMEs and companies have some of the lowest in work training rates in the OECD. Those that fail to invest in skills are the same who fail to invest in R&D, for they rely on short-term gains and not realising long-term opportunity. Allied to investing in research— and with it our high skill level researchers— is the imperative that we invest in skills across the supply chain if diffusion, adaption and development is to succeed. It’s why I have decided to establish the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica, to highlight how training and lifelong skills investment is just as essential for economic transformation as R&D, indeed one cannot happen effectively without the other. 

If we are to research for the better, ‘global science superpower’ narrative must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed: the challenge for us all is joining both together in a way that demonstrates real change to the lives of people or SMEs who do not view R&D as something that either affects them, or they need to do. 

Engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.

Of course, this is where engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier. The historian in me still believes we have much to learn from the role of engineering in the history of innovation, and what lessons we can still learn for today on how to achieve large scale systems changes needed for society. 

The challenge we face, however, is how we make change just as convenient and comfortable as possible, when in areas such as climate change and the emissions reductions needed to achieve net zero, require transformations away from current technologies and behaviours that seem daunting.

But it can be done. Indeed it must be done. R&D into new, yet to exist technologies will have a critical role to play in achieving net zero, a target which I signed into law back in 2019. Yet equally if not more important is the impact that research into how we can better use existing technologies to achieve net zero. If 2021 will be dominated by any agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow in November, it will have to be research that steps up to deliver on the greener future that will be required. 

The issue for the UK’s R&D strategy comes when we move away from the clearly defined narratives of levelling up, building back better, or a green recovery. Mission orientated approaches towards specific goals and outcomes are helpful in supporting these narratives, shaping them and the financial investment needed to deliver upon them. But UK research has also led and shaped a better future by its discovery led nature, based on excellence. This cannot be left aside in the desire to create more challenge-based funding schemes. The creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency is a welcome one, but again this should not be viewed as an alternative to properly funding laboratory focused research across departments in our universities and research institutes, which will still be conducting perhaps 90% of existing R&D research. 

I make this point, for if we are to research for a better future, it is worth reminding that this does not always necessarily mean we need to resort to novelty. Existing funding mechanisms such as QR are perhaps the best means by which to get R&D investment flowing so that it has maximum impact. I’ve seen first-hand also how QR can be used as the mortar to bind various funding streams together, so that organically, research projects can then flourish and attract further private R&D in turn. Equally, funding opportunities such as the Research Partnership Investment Fund or the Higher Education Innovation Fund are working, though I believe with the publication of the Knowledge Exchange Framework, they can be now harnessed to better qualitative data. 

We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% … we just need to change the tyre.

One of the reasons I campaigned strongly also for association to Horizon Europe was along these same conservative principles, that we should seek to preserve and protect long cherished research partnerships that have been forged over many years. It is a philosophy perhaps best espoused by Michael Oakshott—  ‘to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible’. We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% as I would suggest, we just need to change the tyre.

That said, I do believe that there is a case for fashioning a new compact for R&D between government, universities and our research institutes, one based not solely on increased investment, but on how that money is apportioned and how better research can be realised by engendering a better sense of trust within the system. 

Far too often, too many researchers in both university and industry and chasing too many pots of grant funding, the total amount of which will last but a year if lucky before another funding cycle needs to be initiated. An hour wasted on form-filling, on meetings to agree who will conduct the assessment, to meet the demands and conditions of the grant, is potentially an hour of research wasted. The government has rightly instigated a Bureaucracy Review into existing processes, but I wonder if everyone would not be better served by moving towards a model of research funding like Horizon Europe, that has a multi-financial framework, a fixed seven year research programme. 

For the government, such a single research fund might help to rationalise investments from discovery led research and ARIA at the apex, towards more translational and applied research at the base, with missions acting as funding streams. Setting a multi-annual budget would also allow for UKR&D activity to be more agile, to seize potential collaborative R&D activities with international partners, and to break free from the annual cycle of the R&D budget. And at the same time, a single research budget could be clearly communicable to the public and taxpayer, in the same way Horizon has been across Europe. 

Perhaps you may view this as just too ambitious, though we should recognise that, as the pandemic has demonstrated and Net Zero will need to demonstrate in spades if it is to succeed, the horizontal structures of government and society need to be as strong as the vertical,  to which a single budget commissioning research might be the answer. 

Stability

Underlying the purpose of a single budget, and a multi-annual framework aligned to an agreed settlement, is perhaps the most important principle we need for research: stability. You all know the value that stability brings, and the threat to research that instability endangers. Grants are paused, revenue streams dry up, collaborations once possible move elsewhere. More than money can ever buy, stability lies at the heart of a successful R&D ecosystem. That is why it is so important that when considering any policy decision, and its potential to disrupt or delay, analysis is given to how this might impact upon research capacity. 

To this I would like to add two further priorities for delivering better research: security and sustainability. 

Security

Security of course has more than one connotation, both facing inwards and outwards. For the research community, research cannot be conducted effectively without the frameworks and agreements that underpin collaboration. The importance of intellectual property rights and other intangible assets is only growing, and if the UK is to maintain its leadership in these fields, we will need to seek out new means of securing new rights across digital domains and AI. Post-Brexit, we seriously need to address issues around UK IP rights and our relationship with the European Patent Office, but this should also point to a wider review of how the UK can lead on the debates around the future of copyright, trademarks and patents working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 

The security of research that has the potential to fall into the hands of hostile agents needs to be guarded against too, which is why the creation of a new unit in BEIS to monitor threats to universities and research institutes is a welcome one. We should continue to seek collaborations across the globe, for research knows no boundaries, but this cannot come at the cost of compromising the value of research that has been funded by the taxpayer. Then there is the question of sovereignty when it comes to critical national infrastructure and assets. Debates around a UK GNSS system in space and UK independence will likely translate across to other new technologies in due course. Post-Brexit, there is a powerful narrative to be explored about how the UK, while working to strengthen its international collaboration in research, can at the same time increase and improve its independent manufacturing capacity in new technologies. 

But security in research, for any researcher, is also about their job. Putting food on the table, looking after their family, scientists and researchers are human after all, even if it seems at times that they perform superhuman tasks. Academic precarity for early career researchers was an area of policy I sought to focus on when a Minister, highlighting the consequences of fixed term contracts and non disclosure agreements that undermined staff and their welfare. Never mind the so-called ‘brain drain’ across the Atlantic, we continue to lose too many excellent researchers from our universities, some who never return to work in R&D again. This is an unacceptable loss of talent, and an unacceptable loss of taxpayer investment in human capital that has been wasted due to lack of foresight. It’s why one of the last announcements I made was that the government should construct a People Strategy for research, to plan effectively how to retain researchers and not lose them through a lack of secure job opportunities.  

Sustainability

To stability and security, I would also add sustainability. By that I don’t mean measuring sustainability by SDGs or in financial terms, though that is clearly important, but in sustaining the institutions through which R&D flows. 

To return to that same Oakshottean principle, we should seek to conserve that which has worked, to recognise and respect the value that our existing universities and research institutes bring to Britain globally. This includes taking care not to threaten university R&D activity inadvertently. Ultimately, this would not happen if research costs were funded at full economic cost. To place research activity at the mercy of international student flows or any other cross-subsidisation seems a dangerous place, and perhaps ultimately unsustainable place, to be. 

Universities and their research have been so outstanding at delivering on international sustainable development goals, turning their focus on how to improve societies across the globe, that sometimes they seem to have neglected their own sustainability. By this I don’t mean their financial sustainability, but the sustainability of their public image. I have campaigned for universities to recognise their value as civic institutions, to become anchor institutions in the towns and cities from which they take their name, if they are to retain wider public support. 

There is so much untapped potential here, for universities to not only highlight their existing importance to their local and regional economies, but to consciously adopt new strategies of setting up walk in centres on local high streets, engaging seriously with future modular and course based provision, to demonstrate why they can be change makers locally as well as globally. Of course there is a wider role here for how all this is measured if it is to be managed, but the intent should come before the process. In an age of competing priorities, the more universities can do to expand their mission, the more likely they are to secure their future. As I have said previously, Red Wall universities can spearhead an educational and civic mission as impressive as the Red Brick universities had, if they are willing to look at how to do things differently, diversify and adapt. Sustainability can and should be local as much as global. 

Call it the Plan Triple S, if you like, but these three words: stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future. Between them they blend, I believe, the vital importance of retaining and conserving what the UK already does so well, with the potential to achieve even more, building on our successes. 

For ultimately, if we want to research for a better world, we need better research. 

Thank you. 

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP 

Brexit impact in Engineering Higher Education

Updated 28/03/19

As the political crisis over Brexit continues in Parliament, an exclusive analysis by the Engineering Professors’ Council reveals that a cascade of effects – resulting simply from Brexit’s impact on engineering research – will deal a blow to the economy nationally and will hit certain regions even harder.

The analysis shows the critical role EU funding has in fuelling innovation through engineering research, which boosts industry at a regional level, which in turn drives the national economy. 

Engineering research in UK universities receives £877 million in EU-based grants and contracts and is the largest national recipient of such funding. Under current Brexit plans, the UK would no longer be eligible for these funds and even if they were directly replaced by funding from UK taxpayers, that would still not compensate for the loss of a ‘multiplier effect’, which, the EPC calculates, increases the value of international research revenue by a factor of 3.35 as well as providing soft benefits.

The EPC research briefing, deeper analysis and downloadable data exclusively for members is available here.

europe-1456246_1280

Updated 30/1/17

Assuming Theresa May is able to stick to her intended timetable (the first hurdle of which is to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March 2017), the UK will cease to be a member of the EU in 2019.

The picture is getting clearer about what this may mean. In the meantime, there are far more questions than answers. So, to support its members, the EPC has tried to ask the questions that engineering in HE needs answered most urgently and to summarise what we know so far (if anything). Rather than repeat what you will no doubt have seen elsewhere, we have tried to focus specifically on concerns and opportunities for engineering in HE.

These questions are complex. Our answers have tried to be simple, but they may be simplistic. There may well be other questions that need asking and our answers will undoubtedly benefit from further comment.

We would be grateful if you would use the comments facility to pose further questions and share your own reflections, expertise and, in particular, real life experiences in relation to the issues raised.

 

How Brexit might affect UK students?

Will engineering students’ mobility be affected? For instance, will they still be able to participate in the Erasmus programme?

There is no immediate change to the UK’s participation in the Erasmus+ scheme, with guaranteed funds for applications in 2016 and 2017[i]. After that, however, a British exclusion from the scheme is, for the moment, highly likely[ii]. Other non-EU members – Norway and Switzerland – do have agreements to participate and the UK might broker a similar arrangement. However, there are costs to participating in the single market and both Norway and Switzerland pay a contribution to EU programmes on research and education. The Government has so far provided no indication that it would do the same.

Update 5/10/2016: A petition has been started to urge the Government to continue to participate in the Erasmus scheme after Brexit.

Update: 30/1/2017: In her speech Brexit on 17th January, Theresa May made it clear that she has no intention of ‘buying back’ into elements of EU membership. However, in the Q&A session in the Commons later the same day, she hinted that the UK might “pay into specific programmes” after all. On balance, it looks like she regards continued membership of the ERASMUS+ programme as something for the negotiating table and not one over which she will lose any sleep.

Will UK students be more inclined to study engineering abroad given the increasing costs of studying in the UK and potential damage to their international work prospects?

The increase in costs was a reality before Brexit with the rises in tuition fees in recent years. In other European countries (such as Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark), the tuition fees are, relatively speaking, extremely low compared to UK universities – sometimes they are even free – and many such courses are taught in English[iii]. Some data suggest there has been a rise in recent years in the number of UK students taking up these opportunities to study abroad, however the evidence is not conclusive.

Many international engineering companies, such as Rolls Royce, which have strong links with UK HE engineering departments and support high quality students’ placements, might consider developing their core business outside the UK. This could limit the number and quality of placements available in the future, and students might consider taking studies abroad in universities with stronger links with international companies.

However, if Brexit means UK students face higher fees to study abroad, they may be put off. They may choose to opt for UK courses even though the quality and range of placements may have been compromised.

Will international partnerships be affected? For example, will students be as able to do placements in international companies during their studies?

See above.

Will the employment prospects of UK engineering students be affected?

This will depend on the impact of Brexit on the wider economy and the engineering sector in particular. See below. (It also depends on the impact on the financial sector, which recruits a significant proportion of engineering graduates.)

Economic pressure hits the recruitment of entry-level staff first and hardest. Engineering firms may scale down recruitment or, in the case of larger businesses, they may move it to other European countries.

However, the skills shortages in engineering are such that engineering graduates may find their skills are still in sufficiently high demand to be largely unaffected by economic tides.

Since employment rates are to be used as a key metric for TEF, any impact on graduates may have significant repercussions for universities and academic departments too.

 

How Brexit might affect international students?

Will UK universities still be an attractive place to study engineering for international students?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, there is a willingness to keep the UK as a “magnet for international talent”, and high-skilled immigration, whether to work or study, but with a strict control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU. Free movement to Britain from Europe will not be guaranteed.

Beyond Erasmus (see above), there are no immediate changes planned to the funding of EU students studying in the UK. For now, the Government is saying that students who have started a course before August 2016 will have the eligibility for the duration of that course. There’s no word yet on what will happen in future[iv]. However, if EU nationals are in future treated on a par with other international students when it comes to fees, it would leave them facing far higher costs to study in the UK and they are unlikely to be entitled to student loans. It is hard to imagine how this could not act as a powerful disincentive.

Having said that, Brexit may offer new opportunities for non-EU students to study in the UK thanks to lower competition from their EU counterparts. The same may happen with non-EU staff[v], although some reports suggest that Brexit may mean that the UK is regarded in future by people from outside the UK – both EU and non-EU – as less tolerant and welcoming.

The current low value of the pound will make international fee levels relatively more affordable[vi], but conversely, it will also make salaries paid in sterling less attractive.

Update 5/10/2016: In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced major new restrictions on international students coming to the UK to study. She is not waiting for Brexit before imposing these new rules.

The proposal includes limiting the availability of student visas to those accepted on to “high-quality” courses, but it is not clear how that would be determined. One suggestion is that high performance in the TEF may be used, but, since the discipline-level TEF is unlikely before 2019, that would mean that for the next few years all disciplines across an institution would have to be treated as equal for the purposes of student visas – which might be very bad news for engineering departments.

Another suggestion is that the Government would simply apply a prejudicial judgement of quality based on, for example, membership of the Russell Group. The Government’s argument is that these measures will preserve the quality of the education that the UK ‘exports’ by only allowing the best institutions to do so. However, given that the stated intention is to reduce absolute student immigration, the logic is flawed and the effect will be to drive down numbers not drive up standards.

Whatever the arguments, restrictions on international student numbers may be very damaging to UK engineering departments because of the loss of high-quality applicants, funding and international relationships. It will also impact on the UK skills shortage which will be exacerbated if the UK has to rely on a home-grown supply of engineering graduates.

Ms Rudd has said that there will be a consolation on the proposals. The EPC will examine them in detail and respond forcefully on behalf of UK engineering departments which attract far more international students than most UK HE courses.

Update 11/10/2016: The Department for Education has now confirmed that EU students applying for university places in England in 2017/18 will continue to be eligible for student loans and grants, and entitled to home fee status for the duration of their course, even past the point that the UK leaves the EU.

Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has also confirmed that EU students applying for a place at a Welsh university for 2017/18 will continue to receive financial support.

Update 14/10/2016: The Scottish Government have also announced that EU students commencing their studies in 2017 will be entitled to complete their studies post-Brexit without a change in fees status.

Will students still be able to do placements in the UK as part of their studies?

The assumption has to be that, post-Brexit, European students would have to apply for a student visa like other foreign nationals, adding to the complexity and obstacles of studying in the UK and doing placements.

Theresa May’s track record on student visas when she was Home Secretary was that she regarded them as too easy a target for exploitation by illegal immigrants. There have been no announcements to suggest that she will be more sympathetic as PM.

 

How Brexit might affect courses in engineering disciplines?

Will UK engineering accreditation still have the same international recognition?

Currently, European recognition is possible across the European Union and the EEA (the European Economic area – the countries covered by agreements on free movement of people and trade)[vii] and international recognition outside Europe is guaranteed through the Engineering Council’s membership of the International Engineering Alliance[viii]. However, recognition of Professional Titles, and the right to work in the EU, can be denied if UK leaves EEA[ix].

In other words Brexit is unlikely to have any significant impact on the recognition of accreditation, but it will be worth keep a close watch.

 

How Brexit might affect academic staff in engineering (lecturers, researchers, other staff)?

How safe are the jobs of European staff at UK universities?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, it is still unclear what the status of the EU staff already working in the UK will be, as stated in point 6 (Rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU). However, free movement to Britain from Europe will not be guaranteed, in order to control immigration.

For now, there’s been no change to the rights and status of EU citizens working in the UK. Nationals from the European Economic Area (EEA) can get a permanent residence card if they have lived in the UK for a continuous period of 5 years[x].

For EU nationals who have been in the UK for less time than that, there are no guarantees, however key Brexit campaigners argued after before and after the Referendum that anyone legally resident in the UK before the Referendum should be given a right to remain. The Government has refused to commit to this, linking the issue to the right of British citizens currently in European countries to remain there.

Given skills shortages in the UK, even if there is no blanket agreement on EU nationals, it has to be supposed that academics in engineering would be well placed to be allowed to stay in the UK along with their families (if already resident here). Unmarried partners, however, may face a more awkward position.

How safe are the jobs of UK staff at European universities?

See above.

How will the recruitment and retention of staff from the European Union be affected?

On this question, there are no answers – only more questions. How will Brexit affect staff who have been living in the UK for less than 5 years (not eligible for a permanent resident card)? How will this affect new staff who come to the UK after the Referendum?

In the long term, the recruitment of EU staff will depend on the negotiations between UK and the European Union. At the heart of those negotiations will be whether the free movement of people can be uncoupled from access to trade freely with the EEA. If it cannot and the UK Government decides that access to the free market is a price worth paying for immigration control, then recruitment is likely to be restricted.[xi]

Academics and researchers in engineering will be regarded as more desirable immigrants than most, but even to have to talk in such terms illustrates the change that might take place.

Will British academics be as able to move to positions in European institutions?

That will depend on the outcome of Brexit negotiations, but unless an arrangement is made for the free movement of people, the process is likely to become more bureaucratic at the very least.

 

How Brexit might affect engineering research and innovation?

Will it be possible to secure ongoing research projects with European funds and European partners? And what are the risks for future research funding?

On the 13 of August 2016, Universities Minister Jo Johnson wrote an open letter to Madeleine Atkins (HEFCE President) to “reassure” the HE sector about the continuity of funding of Horizon 2020 projects[xii]. This was preceded by a Statement from BIS on the 28th June 2016 on higher education and research[xiii]. These announcements were prompted by a Treasury commitment made by the Chancellor Philip Hammond to guarantee EU funding beyond the date that the UK leaves the EU[xiv].

On the face of it, these commitments should be welcome news for the sector. However, in practice, they do not go very far. EU-funded research projects are almost always made to international consortia representing at least two EU nations. They are contractual arrangements setting out the term of the contract. Brexit should not normally affect the contract with a UK research partner as part of the consortium, even if they are the lead partner. There may be contractual provisions that, for example, state that the consortium partners must come from more than one EU nation. Brexit might then put the consortium in breach of the contract. Even then it is hard to see how the Treasury commitment might step in to protect the funding of a consortium that compromises non-UK partners.

The Treasury’s reassurance does not do anything to address the issues as reported to EPC by own members to the EPC – and by others to Scientists for EU[xv] and elsewhere – that suggest EU partners are more reticent about new research partnerships with UK universities or are even excluding UK partners from existing initiatives. Underwriting the funding for UK universities does not help non-UK partners and makes funding no easier to win.

Furthermore, the Treasury’s protection extends only to funding under Horizon 2020. In practice, that horizon is approaching fast and the period after Brexit has taken place and before funding is due to end anyway is not likely to be much more than a year anyway. The Treasury may have calculated that this is a commitment it can afford to make because it is unlikely ever to cost much, if indeed anything at all.

Nonetheless, it is comforting that The European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) has expressed its support for UK engineering research, reaffirming a commitment to cooperation initiatives with UK members[xvi].

What European funding options will be available after Brexit?

Update 26/01/2017: in the light of May’s ‘Global Britain’ speech, delivered on the 17th January, the UK will no longer be a member of the single market. A new trade agreement will be negotiated, and participation in some specific European programmes will be sought. Point 10 (The best place for science and innovation) raises some hope for science, research, and technology initiatives, as the PM welcomes an agreement to continue to collaborate with EU in science and innovation.

As with Erasmus (see above), Switzerland and Norway, which are not members of the EU, can apply for Horizon 2020 funding and will probably continue that arrangement with whatever funding scheme replaces it. To qualify for this support, those nations contribute financially to the EU’s research funding. Theresa May has ruled out “buying back” into the benefits of the EU in the past, but in the Q&A in the Commons following her speech, she hinted that the UK might “pay into specific programmes”.

However, from a political perspective, if the UK is making large payments to the EU in order to participate, it is hard to see that as consistent with May’s interpretation of voters’ intentions as expressed in the Referendum. Also, full participation in the Horizon 2020 programme – or any similar successor – relies heavily on freedom of movement (which Norway and Switzerland allow). Being seen to have banned free movement is clearly going to be a red line for May in negotiations.

This issue appears to be one that May hopes to resolve at the negotiating table and, probably, she regards the UK’s research excellence as a strong card to hold.

Particularly in the light of the Stern Review, will Brexit have an impact on REF?

Even with the Treasury’s protections (see above), in the absence of a new arrangement (like that with Norway or Switzerland), EU research funding to UK universities is likely to tail off around the same time that the next REF round is due. A Brexit-related fall in funding would create barriers to research competitiveness and would negatively impact the wider public research impact.

What will happen to the UK’s membership of non-EU European organisations?

UK to withdraw from Euratom

Update 27/01/2017 As well as triggering Article 50, the Brexit Bill before Parliament empowers the PM to withdraw from Euratom, the community that provides the basis for research into nuclear power. As this is not an EU body, it is unlikely the Government would seek this authority unless it intends to exercise it, which casts a worrying shadow over the future of fusion research in the UK and international collaborations which may prove critical for the future of energy trade and combatting climate change. Read more.

 

How Brexit might affect knowledge transfer in engineering?

Will collaborations with industry be affected and, if so, how?

Research collaborations need not be affected so long as the UK engineering sector itself remains economically healthy and competitive (see below).

It is even possible to argue that a reduction in EU research funding may encourage private sector to plug funding gaps because the research drives their own innovation (although the funding criteria would of course be quite different). However, the gap to be filled may open up only in the UK and, instead of supporting more research in Britain, larger industrial partners will look to what may be a more healthy research environment in EU universities.

In any case, most predictions for the economic health of the engineering sector post-Brexit are not encouraging. That might lead to shrinking business, falling recruitment and relocation of investment overseas.

Having said that, in order to stave off economic hardship, some of the larger, more resilient firms may decide to invest more heavily in research and innovation.  Whether they do so in the UK will depend on the value they place on the competitiveness of UK research. That in turn will be linked to engineering faculties’ ability to recruit and retain highly skilled researchers (which links back to the mobility of staff, see above).

Will there be impacts relating to patents?

The UK is a signatory to the European Patent Convention and this is separate to membership of the EU. At the moment there are no immediate changes regarding UK businesses’ ability to apply to the European Patent Office for patent protection[xvii].

 

How Brexit might affect the engineering sector as a whole?

Is it likely to become harder to meet engineering skills shortages?

There is a significant and recognised shortage of engineering skills in the UK and the UK HE system ameliorates this shortage for the wider economy by attracting students and staff who have desirable skills from other countries. The skills shortage is a reality and could be massively exacerbated with Brexit.

Will there be an impact on the sector’s international competitiveness?

The vast majority of experts, from academic economists to financial institutions, predicted before the Referendum that Brexit would be damaging to the UK economy. In particular, an exit from the EEA would make exports to the UK’s largest trading partners less competitive and imports from the EEA more expensive.

Since the Referendum, the economic signals have been mixed, but the general trends so far give little reason to believe that the predictions were wrong – and, of course, the UK is, for now, still in the EEA.

The value of the pound dropped heavily immediately after the Referendum which has given a boost to the UK’s export economy. However, this is unlikely to be a long-term effect, because the currency value is a self-limiting mechanism: sterling will strengthen again if its low value boosts the UK economy. Indeed, it has already rallied in the absence of an immediate economic post-referendum meltdown.

Any economic downturn may hit the engineering sector especially badly. Some areas of engineering rely heavily on European exports (eg the automotive industry) or on the major infrastructure projects that, over recent years, have received large-scale European funding. Engineering is a global industry and so many firms will find it relatively easy to move investment out of the UK if the conditions here are disadvantageous. Any economic hardship is likely to result in smaller R&D budgets and consequences for HE research partners.

The majority of the UK engineering sector, however, is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which will not be in a position to relocate or expand investment in the face of an economic downturn. They are likely to recruit less.

If so, what repercussions are there likely to be for engineering in HE?

On the negative side: loss of EU prospective students and staff; funding issues; damaging of European partnerships.

On the positive side: links between industry and universities may strengthen.

 

Other resources

Universities UK “Policy priorities to support universities to thrive post-exit” [February 2017] 

Universities UK has produced a briefing paper (PDF) which outlines the policy priorities the government should deliver. These priorities fall into three clear stages:

  1. Short-term transitional arrangements
  2. Exit negotiations
  3. Domestic policy change

 

 

Photograph: Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay
88x31