How Brexit could pose a threat to all of Europe’s high tech clusters

The UK vote to leave the EU is symbolic of a more widespread anti-globalisation sentiment that could hamper international collaboration and limit the supply of foreign talent. This could weaken Europe’s university-industry clusters as a whole

British MEP Vicky Ford

The ongoing success of high tech clusters depends on a ready supply of foreign talent and ease in establishing international collaborations. The current backlash against globalisation – as exemplified by the UK vote to leave the EU and echoed in Switzerland’s referendum in favour of immigration controls – could limit the availability of these essential ingredients, posing a widespread threat to future growth, according to speakers at the recent Science|Business conference on Europe’s university-industry clusters.

Following the UK referendum vote in favour of Brexit, it is unclear to what extent the UK’s big tech clusters, such as London and Cambridge, will continue to be integrated into the broader European R&D system.

To take just one example of what is at stake, the new Francis Crick Institute, which opened its doors last month, will employ 1,250 scientists at the heart of London’s world-leading biotech and medtech cluster.

These researchers are from 70 different countries, with more than 60 per cent coming from outside the UK, and over 40 per cent from EU member states other than the UK. Many currently hold EU grants, and this forms an important part of the Crick’s £130 million annual budget.

It is not a given that the UK’s exit from the EU will prompt such highly-skilled people to relocate to mainland Europe, Vicky Ford, MEP for Cambridge, told the conference. “Some think post-Brexit, we can just poach all of the talent out of the UK and move it to other parts of the continent,” Ford said. “I don’t believe the talent will necessarily flow to elsewhere in the EU. It risks being lost to Europe as a whole.”

Many in the Cambridge cluster do have strong links to Europe, but they also have strong links to the US and China, Ford noted. “The choice is between being in Cambridge, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Silicon Fen or Silicon Valley,” she said.

Post-Brexit, the number one priority for researchers and innovators in and around Cambridge, “Is to keep a free and easy exchange of knowledge, skills and talent between the UK science clusters and the rest of the EU,” Ford told delegates.

This sentiment has been voiced by high tech companies, universities and the scientific establishment across the UK.

But with more than two years to go until the final divorce, it is clear Brexit is already having an impact on free movement of labour and on UK’s participation in EU R&D projects. This is despite the UK government’s commitment to underwrite payments on EU research projects that continue beyond the date at which the country finally leaves the union.

Intellectual space

Prompted to give his reassurance to the UK R&D community, Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, told the conference, “For me, Brexit is about institutional links and issues, not intellectual links and issues.”

“The question is… how to keep together that European intellectual space, and we are working on that,” Navracsics said, pointing to the various models and mechanisms used to integrate non-EU countries, including Norway and Switzerland, into the EU framework. These include access to the Erasmus student exchange programme, which encompasses non-EU countries.

Geography versus connectivity

The demand for free movement of labour begs the question of the extent to which it is necessary to concentrate talent in a specific physical location, with some speakers contending that policymakers should focus on connectivity, rather than geography.

The priority should be advancing science, rather than building clusters, said Marcus du Sautoy, professor for the public understanding of science and of mathematics at Oxford University. “CERN is not a place that is about a particular university or a particular country,” du Sautoy said, “It is about people collaborating to make breakthroughs for the sake of making breakthroughs.” 

Rather than creating a single fantastically successful high tech cluster to rival Silicon Valley, Europe has created dozens of moderately successful digital clusters spread across the region (see Science|Business’ new report on these clusters).

Christopher Keely, senior business development manager, Trinity Research & Innovation, the tech transfer arm of Trinity College Dublin, argued the decentralised European model is heavily dependent on international collaboration to succeed. “If we can get an exchange of entrepreneurs across clusters maybe we will have our Silicon Valley in five years’ time,” he said.

Lifestyle choices

The fortunes of each of Europe’s tech clusters hang on the lifestyle choices of hundreds of thousands of talented scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs and their families.

This underlines the importance of cultural factors in creating a successful cluster. The best scientists and entrepreneurs generally want to live in dynamic cities that are seen as cool, and that is contributing to the rise of strong digital clusters in Berlin, London, Barcelona, and other cities with a thriving arts scene.  

For Dietlef Eckert, director, Directorate E-Skills, Directorate General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission, calls to close borders in Europe and elsewhere are exactly the opposite of what digital economies need to be successful.

“Isn’t one of the common features of these clusters that they attract people from all over the world?” he asked. “When you look at Berlin, for instance … it is a very cool city for many people, and you meet people from all over the world.”

Indeed, some speakers argued that Europe’s clusters need to become more international and suggested local policymakers should be trying to foster a multicultural atmosphere.

In successful clusters, the academic institutions are much more international than elsewhere, noted Jaak Aaviksoo, Rector of Tallinn University of Technology. “Europe-wide, foreign students account for 3-5 per cent of the student body,” he said. “Academic staff, the same number, less than 10 per cent. But in strong developing clusters, this is more like 20 per cent, 30 per cent, even 50 per cent. This is one very important component,” Aaviksoo said.
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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, TechClustersEU