Jo Johnson: Brexit would damage UK science

Comments by universities minister could signal a split in opinion in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

January 28, 2016
Jo Johnson
Source: PA

The universities minister Jo Johnson has made the case that a British exit from the European Union could damage UK research, potentially putting him at odds with the business secretary Sajid Javid.

Speaking last night at the annual lecture of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London, Mr Johnson said the campaigners wanting to leave had “serious questions to answer” about how UK science would flourish outside the EU.

“Free movement of people makes it easier for our universities to attract the best talent, and for British students to spread their wings across the Continent, as I was able to do as a young student at institutions in France and Belgium,” Mr Johnson argued.

EU countries accounted for almost half of British international research collaborations, he said. In the current EU research round, Horizon 2020, the UK secured 15.4 per cent of funds, behind only Germany, he added.

“No one doubts that Britain could stay a science player outside the EU,” Mr Johnson, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, acknowledged. “But the risks to valuable institution partnerships, to flows of bright students, and to a rich source of science funding mean that the leave campaign has serious questions to answer”.

He also rounded on the idea that the UK could successfully access EU research funding from outside the union, as Norway, Israel and Turkey currently do.

“Non-EU countries may be part of the European research area…but they don’t get a seat at the table when the ministerial council or the parliament are setting the rules, or deciding the budgets,” he said.  

His superior, Sajid Javid, has made a series of Eurosceptic comments over the past year, although he has not yet revealed which way he will vote in the referendum, currently being touted to take place either in June or September this year.

Pressed by Labour MP Stella Creasy in a hearing last week of the Commons Science and Technology Committee on whether he thought EU membership benefited UK science and research, Mr Javid said funds such as Horizon 2020 were “helpful”, but were not an important part of the overall debate.

Asked last night whether his views on the EU clashed with those of Mr Javid, Mr Johnson said: “There’s no disagreement between us at all.”

During the speech, Mr Johnson also announced a doubling of the Newton Fund, which supports research between the UK and developing countries, to £150 million a year by 2021.

The government will also put £20 million towards an Inspiring Science Capital Fund, along with £10 million from the Wellcome Trust, to support science exhibits and attractions aimed at encouraging young people to consider a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

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