Beyond Brexit: How universities and companies are trying to look past the cliff edge

11 Feb 2019 | News

After the prolonged and – as yet undelivered – promise of a managed process, the UK is bracing for a rocky, no-deal Brexit. We are doing the best we can to find a way through it, a recent Science|Business meeting heard

"We are not nationally coordinated and we’re trying as best we can to find a way through [Brexit]" said Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

UK universities and companies with partners, collaborators and business across Europe are looking to a future laden with uncertainty.

March 29 is the day the UK is supposed to leave the EU. Without a late breakthrough in negotiations, or a multilateral decision to allow a postponement, the country will crash out of the EU without a deal: an epic stalemate, with potentially huge repercussions for the economy as tariffs and border checks are re-established.

The huge defeat for the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in parliament last month was taken as the signal to prepare for no-deal. Many companies started to activate contingency plans, in effect triggering their own de facto hard Brexit.

People are bracing for a messy transition but acknowledge, as the crunch comes, that it is  concentrating minds and providing the spur for a spate of new deals.

“We are not nationally coordinated and we’re trying as best we can to find a way through it. But I have begun ironically saying that ‘I love Brexit’ because it focuses the mind and results in more energetic and certainly more speedy conversations than we used to have,” said Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick.

Speaking at an event at Imperial College London, at which Science|Business brought together universities and companies to share their thoughts on ‘Beyond Brexit’ strategies, Hand said the game plan for Warwick is to “double down” on its strong European and global identity. In common with executives from leading research institutions all over the UK, he is hopping on planes to the continent to tie up new deals, develop alliances and ensure research relations built over decades do not fall to pieces.

Some of the new partnerships have an unusual twist. University College London (UCL), for example, has announced a “cities partnership” programme to “focus on a city rather than a specific partner”. The three-year partnerships, with Rome and Paris chosen as the initial destinations, will involve funding for academic collaborations, teaching and a series of public events.

UCL positions itself as the most successful university in collaborative research in Europe. But it admits that status is in jeopardy, with the UK standing to lose tens of millions of euros in funding from EU research programmes if there is a hard Brexit.

“We had the aim of becoming the number one coordinator of the Horizon 2020 [EU research programme] in the world, but that prospect is now actively reduced,” said Martin Scott, UCL’s head of European Innovation Management.

The terms of the UK’s continued participation in EU research is currently the focus of intense negotiations. But for now, UCL is no longer seeking coordinating roles in certain EU-funded projects, Scott said. The university’s researchers are involved in 408 Horizon 2020 projects worth over €260 million.

A host of other partnerships are at various stages of development. Imperial College London has formed a joint maths laboratory in London with the National Centre for Scientific Research, France’s largest government research agency. The university also pledged to deepen its work with Technical University of Munich in a range of fields, including informatics, medicine and medical sciences, bioengineering and aerospace engineering.

Oxford University, meanwhile, is establishing a legal outpost in Berlin, while Cambridge has said it will jointly-funded research projects with Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

For the UK, the timing of the push to create EU university networks, inspired by French president Emmanuel Macron, could not be better. In 2017 Macron proposed the formation 20 cross-border European university networks, of about four partners each, to strengthen academic performance and boost European cooperation.

The first tranche of money, €30 million from the European Commission, will pay for an exchange of students, researchers and administrative staff. UK universities are enthusiastic participants, at least for now, while the programme is still open to them.

Small companies left behind

The ambition behind the many new collaborations is bigger than the wallets of smaller research bodies, however. EU funding might make up a small proportion of total UK business R&D, but it comprises 17 per cent of R&D carried out by SMEs, which received over £650 million between 2007 and 2013.

Simon Andrews, executive director of Fraunhofer UK, a part publicly-funded research organisation that specialises in translational research said, “I’m concerned for the small companies.” Uncertainty has discouraged investment generally, Andrews said. "Before the referendum half a dozen UK universities had prepared two-page business cases to establish further Fraunhofer centres in the UK, now these are not talked about, as people wait and see.”

The threat to the wider economy is evident. “If industry catches a cold, we’ll catch a cold. That’s the biggest risk for us,” said Andrews.

Large multinationals are also suffering Brexit pain. Under a mandate from the UK government, pharmaceutical companies have been building six-week stockpiles of drugs and preparing contingency plans for flying medicines into the country.

Pharmaceutical companies were also hit by a Commission diktat, delivered via the European Medicines Agency (EMA), to move marketing licenses and batch testing for centrally approved drugs from the UK to mainland Europe.

Pfizer has put aside $100 million to cover forced expenses. “If you don’t know the outcome, you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” said Vincent Clay, Pfizer’s senior manager of EU government affairs. The company is transferring product testing and licenses to other countries and changing clinical trial management procedures.

“There will be unavoidable disruptions to our research networks,” said Clay. The company has been part of 40 projects run under the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative, the public-private partnership aimed at speeding up the development of medicines.

For nuclear scientists, Brexit spells the end of UK participation in the research body, Euratom, which has underwritten the most successful fusion experiment anywhere in the world, the Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, Oxfordshire.

“JET has led the field,” said Tim Bestwick, director of business and innovation at the UK Atomic Energy Authority. “It has put Culham – an Oxfordshire village – on the global map. Ending the agreements that have put us in a position of global leadership would be a really big deal.’

Sunlit uplands

For others, the Brexit view is more serene. “When the vote happened, I looked at where our data is going: the vast amount of data flows are to the US [and Canada],” said Paul Feldman, CEO of Jisc, the UK government-funded agency that provides network resources and cyber security for universities and colleges.

“Our researchers are not solely working with Europe,” said Feldman. “We’re part of global collaborations and we’re building cables to South America, Singapore and Japan. I do believe we will make our way through the current mess; infrastructures like ourselves will make it happen.”

Bestwick points to the UK’s participation in the (growing) Eureka programme as some light in the Brexit gloom.

The UK, signalling its determination to remain a big player in European collaborative innovation, took leadership of the Eureka inter-governmental innovation network last year, and pledged to increase its contribution from £5 million to £15 million per annum over the next 4 years.

“It’s the biggest innovation programme you’ve never heard of,” said Bestwick, who is chairing the UK team. “And it is unaffected by Brexit.”

The network, now numbering over 40 countries, plus the European Commission, funds collaborative innovation projects. Since its formation in 1985, Eureka has raised almost €40 billion for 17,000 companies. The 30 per cent success rate for applicants of the Eurostars programme is around twice that of Horizon 2020. “Each party funds its own side of a project, which fosters cooperation between the national funding agencies,” Bestwick added.

Keep connected

The UK’s clouds have a silver lining for the EU27. “I’ve seen a big effort by the government to attract people and businesses,” said Rolf Vermeij, liaison officer, strategy and policy in the EU Office at the University of Twente. “Science policy is not high up the agenda in the Netherlands, but there is interest to the extent that it can add to the economy. The Dutch government sees [Brexit] as an economic opportunity,” he said.

Amsterdam will be the new home of one of the most obvious spoils of Brexit, the EMA, which closed its Canary Wharf headquarters in London last month. The EU regulator was forced to relocate to the Dutch capital, which won the bid to host the agency in 2017, because EU pharmaceuticals regulation needs to be done in a member state. It will arrive in an enfeebled state, having lost 25 per cent of its 900 employees due to the relocation.

Down in the labs, the view is a bit different. “We made analyses of the people we work with most, and it’s UK universities. We’re quite worried about losing this connection,” said Frank Zuijdam, policy director and head of academic affairs at the University of Amsterdam.

UK scientists say the same thing. “I am the only British person in my lab; without European colleagues, nothing would happen,” said Maggie Dallmann, international vice president and professor of immunology at Imperial College. “Imperial has published over 60,000 papers in the last decade [with European partners]. We need these connections to continue.”

The increasingly palpable hard Brexit would end the UK’s participation in the prestigious European Research Council, and spell an uncertain future for grantees living in the country. “Some of this talent could leave overnight,” said Hand.

The government should cushion the fallout, participants suggested, by relaxing immigration rules to allow more scientists from outside the EU into the UK.

‘Ideas in all directions’

Clare Moody, a British MEP, said there is recognition in Brussels of what the UK brings, and the desire for an ongoing relationship. “The overwhelming majority want us to stay as close as the UK government will allow us to,” Moody said.

That is certainly the view from France. “Brexit is sad but it’s not catastrophic,” said Ludovic Drouin, scientific attaché at the French Embassy in London. “We are smart and we’ll continue to find ways to collaborate.”

There was the same message from the world’s largest multilateral bank. “We have to land in a way that allows us to rebuild relationships,” said Constance Kann, director of institutional relations and public affairs at the European Investment Bank, in which the UK has a roughly 16 per cent share – until it leaves the EU.

While there is a mad rush to secure relationships abroad, there is also a quieter effort closer to home.

The near-unified stance universities took in opposing Brexit revealed an uncomfortable fissure between the institutions and local populations in some cities who voted to leave the bloc.

This is prompting some soul searching, with universities trying harder to reach people outside its bubble. “People might say Imperial College and civic education – they don’t go together. We are more determined now to work with the community,” said Dallman.

Next to the university’s campus in White City, London, is a “makerspace”, which hosts workshops open to people from all backgrounds and ages. “We need ideas to come from all directions,” Dallman said.

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