Brexit: EU ‘peripheral’ to university business investment

Consultant downplays fears that leaving the EU could see overseas sources of funding dry up

February 26, 2016
European Union (EU) flag missing star (Brexit)

The UK’s membership of the European Union is “peripheral” to whether or not it receives money for research from businesses overseas, according to an economic consultant whose company has conducted research for the government.

Ian Thompson, from Economic Insights, also questioned whether the UK received more back than it put in to common EU research pots.

Speaking at Science, Innovation and the UK Research Budget, a conference in London organised by Policy-UK, he downplayed the impact of a Brexit on UK research.

“The primary reason that businesses invest in UK research is because of the quality of the research we do here. Providing that doesn’t change, I don’t think we’re in significant danger,” he said.

He added: “My guess is that whatever happens, the UK will remain a very attractive place to put investment because of the quality of the research...rather than peripheral reasons such as whether we’re members of the EU or not.”

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, who is in favour of the UK staying in the EU, has argued that the UK gets a large slice of funding from the union's current collective research pot, Horizon 2020.

But Mr Thompson said that it was very difficult to calculate what the UK paid into EU research budgets and what it got out, “so I’m not sure if you can say whether we’re a net receiver or giver in terms of EU funding for research”, he told delegates.

Economic Insights published a report last year, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that analysed how public research investment attracted private sources of income.

Later during the session, asked whether a Brexit could hinder research by putting up barriers to movement to the UK, Rebecca Lumsden, head of science policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: “One can only assume that an EU exit would damage that skill base.”

But Mr Thompson focused on the existing visa barriers to academics outside the UK. Some universities “can’t hire that world-leading professor from the US because they can’t get the professor’s spouse into the UK”, he pointed out.

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