Academics have spoken out about the risks that Brexit poses to university-business collaboration with the potential loss of research-dependent companies to other countries, reduced access to European funding and falling out of business networks being top concerns.
Links between UK universities and European firms received a boost last week after the announcement that Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant, was investing £115 million in a new research centre at the University of Oxford despite the prospect of Brexit.
However, reports have suggested that major companies important to the strength of some sectors of British industry, and that have strong ties with universities, are reconsidering their presence in the country.
According to industry insiders, among firms carefully considering their future is Airbus, which has a base in Filton, near Bristol, in the South West aerospace cluster, which is facing pressure to move its operations to other European countries because of the UK leaving the European Union.
Likewise, Nissan, the car-maker, said last month that it will review the case for any future investment in the UK once the terms of departure from the EU become clear, despite private reassurances on trade from the government.
Airbus and Nissan each invested in excess of $4 billion (£3.2 billion) on research and development globally in 2016, according to research by Strategy&, a consultancy arm of professional services company PwC.
David Docherty, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, said that it was “completely uncharted territory” if major companies such as Airbus were to leave the UK but that universities are “thinking through the challenges” that this would present.
“No one is complacent about this. These are significant challenges and we clearly need this to be a top priority for the government,” Dr Docherty said.
He added that research funding from companies was global and could “go anywhere” as decisions are taken at board level and many companies have their headquarters overseas.
“Every major corporation will be reviewing their portfolio of research against the emerging post-Brexit settlement…If the UK does not maintain and grow its research funding then private research funding from global corporations could go elsewhere,” Dr Docherty said.
One university that works closely with Airbus is the University of Bristol. The institution is a strategic research partner of the company and has a five-year framework agreement with Airbus, which comes to an end this year. Discussions are currently under way to renew the agreement.
Nishan Canagarajah, Bristol’s pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, told Times Higher Education that he got the impression that there was not a “real risk” that Airbus would leave the UK. But he added that it is not yet clear exactly how their relationship will pan out in the future.
“Clearly [Airbus] are concerned and they cannot say for definite what their plans are because that depends what the government decides to do. So far, the impression that we are getting is that they will continue to engage with us, but the level of activity is difficult to predict,” he said.
If they did decide to leave the UK, Professor Canagarajah said that it is unlikely that they would take all immediate funding with them as they would honour existing contracts.
“But they would take future funding with them. There will be other ways we will get the capacity but to lose a major global player would be a significant loss,” he said, adding that in the long term this could lead to other innovative companies in the South West aerospace cluster potentially following suit.
Access to EU research funding for joint university and business projects is also a potential issue arising from Brexit.
It is not clear whether UK academics will still have access to Europe’s multibillion research funding programme, Horizon 2020, which sponsors such work, in the future.
Data from the European Commission reveal that of the Horizon 2020 grant agreements signed so far that involve at least one university and one business partner, almost 20 per cent have gone to the UK. Such grants have been worth €2.86 billion (£2.46 billion) to the UK since 2014.
Jonathan Knight, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Bath, said that this funding is “extremely important” and without it “research would suffer enormously”.
But he said that universities are not expecting all this research funding to be lost as they hope that they will be able to establish other funding streams that can, at least to a certain extent, replace it.
“What is more of a challenge is the loss of the networks…The academic and business networks within those programmes have become quite integrated,” said Professor Knight.
“It is really common to work with an academic in another [European] country who can put you in contact with local businesses in those other countries. Those opportunities will be very hard to replace,” he said.
He added that the networks are formalised through the funding programmes as academics regularly attend meetings with collaborators. “If there is no mechanism to ensure that you are constantly...forming new alliances they would gradually die,” he said.
“Believing that we can replace relationships that we may have in Europe with similar relationships elsewhere in the world is naive,” he said.