What Ireland’s science community stands to gain and lose from Brexit

13 Feb 2017

Tower Bridge, London. Image: Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Brexit has raised questions over its potentially harmful effects on the Irish economy. Prof Michael Morris, director of the AMBER centre, explains why there is plenty to be gained for Ireland’s scientific community.

To examine the impact of Brexit on the UK and, consequently, Irish science, it is worth discussing some of the threats and opportunities in depth.

It is becoming clear that Ireland has a significant opportunity to harvest very real gains in the fields of science with the possible withdrawal of the UK from EU science funding mechanisms.

High-tech companies may increasingly see Ireland as a potential location because of its European location and scientific reputation, and such companies clearly bring a spectrum of R&D work.

Perhaps more important will be the increased ability of Ireland to attract international expertise and researchers, to enhance our growing reputation in both basic and applied sciences.

Science research in Ireland has never been in a better state of health.

Importance of industry partnerships

Centres such as AMBER have the funding, infrastructure and researcher expertise to make world-class impacts at the fundamental level, and also in developing new technologies for our Irish industry partners.

The partnership with industry is of critical importance because it enables the application of science into areas such as information and communications technology, healthcare, energy and industrial materials.

Support received from both EU and Irish funding bodies enables industry and academic researchers to work together to drive real societal and economic impact.

Currently, Ireland is ranked first in the world for nanotechnology, and third in the world for the quality of materials science research.

These figures reflect the ability of Irish researchers to attract funding and produce research at the highest possible level.

Materials science research is of particular importance since the technologies it supports are some of the fastest-growing sectors globally, impacting electronics, medical technologies, and pharmaceuticals.

Nine of the world’s top 10 ICT companies are located in Ireland and the industry generates €35bn in exports annually. Nine of the world’s top 10 pharma companies have operations here, and in 2013, the value of exports was just over €50bn.

Michael Morris

Prof Michael Morris. Image: AMBER

Why is funding so important?

The growth of Irish science has been driven by a number of factors, including the Government’s Innovation 2020 strategy which, through working with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), focuses on delivering excellent and impactful scientific research.

Clearly, increased funding will always be a significant factor, but more important is what that funding does: it allows the country to attract researchers of the highest quality.

This includes the most recognised and respected professors through to MSc and PhD students, to complement Ireland’s own researchers.

There is another important factor that should be recognised, and that is the opportunity for both collaboration and networking that EU funding schemes bring.

That has been a driver of excellence in the country, and is providing a dissemination pathway for our work.

Possible vacuum of UK science talent

There is little doubt that UK science could be significantly impacted by Brexit as confirmed in a recent report by the Royal Society.

While the US is the largest collaborative research partner for the UK, seven of the top 10 partners are EU countries and in all, 60pc of all UK papers have an EU researcher named on them.

Importantly, the highest impact papers (by citation) published by UK authors are EU collaborations funded under the European Research Council (ERC) schemes.

The UK is very successful in attaining competitive EU funding, receiving almost €3.5bn more than it pays in; however, the benefits are not only financial.

Collaboration provides a quantification of research excellence and drives improvement.

It delivers rapid dissemination of research results through the normal academic routes of publication and presentation, and also through the development of intellectual property.

The vacuum that might remain following Brexit can provide an opportunity for Ireland to expand its EU collaborative mandate with other EU partners.

Ireland’s stature in Europe

Ireland already has considerable success in obtaining EU funding. At the moment, our success rate is around twice the EU average.

Professors Jonathan Coleman and Valeria Nicolosi within the AMBER centre are clear examples of Irish scientists that have translated their expertise into building EU partnerships and collaborations.

They are both prestigious ERC grant holders, with Nicolosi being the only five-time award winner in Europe, and Coleman playing a leading role in the EU Graphene Flagship.

Scientists such as these have the international reputation to grasp the opportunities that might arise from leading UK universities not being able to access European funding.

Damage to UK business

Business in the UK is also likely to feel the effects of a possible withdrawal from funding schemes.

As well as the danger of losing contact with discovery-driven research programmes, it may affect companies that work with academic institutions under EU Horizon 2020 (H2020) actions such as Pilots and SME-focused schemes that enable research to translate from the lab into production.

The lack of access to such schemes is likely to have a detrimental effect, as the ability of industry to access academic expertise and translate that research into products is critical to success.

For some companies, it may be decisive in a decision to relocate.

EU flag

EU flag. Image: vvoe/Shutterstock

The downsides of Brexit for Irish science

Mobility of researchers is crucial as it provides for dissemination of knowledge and skills through collaboration and relocation, enabling the researchers to upskill at the most relevant institutions.

These researchers bring knowledge and expertise in new fields and provide a talent pool for onward recruitment for industry and academia.

The combination of a potential border control and the lack of participation in EU-funded mobility schemes such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions could have a significant impact on the UK research base.

The potential threat to the Irish scientific research landscape arises from a history of traditionally partnering with the UK on collaborative research.

This collaboration has been built based on many common factors, but the almost transparent border makes both countries easily accessible destinations for their young and established researchers.

UK collaboration dropping

However, the role of UK collaboration in Ireland has dropped in recent years and currently, only 15pc of published Irish papers include a UK author.

While UK research partners make up 13.4pc of all Irish partners in the H2020 programme – its most popular partner country in the EU – the contribution of collaborations in Germany, France and Spain, amongst others, are growing in importance.

Although the issues caused by Brexit and a possible withdrawal from EU funding streams could impact Ireland’s growing scientific reputation, there are clear opportunities that exist for Irish science, whether or not the UK have a complete or partial withdrawal from the EU-funding mechanisms.

Industry has a role to play

There is an obvious opportunity to attract industry funding through companies willing to look at Ireland as a foundation partner, either via relocation or routing research through Irish subsidiaries.

UK-based companies have been strong supporters of postgrad training schools and it may be possible to develop versions of these programmes here.

The SFI centres programme provides the infrastructure and expertise to engage with research-led companies, and all of the centres have the business development and EU-funding support staff to exploit such opportunities.

At AMBER, the EU funding achieved is approaching €30m and is expected to exceed the total SFI and industry cash combination at the end of the first cycle of funding in 2018.

Prof Plamen Stamenov

Prof Plamen Stamenov, investigator at AMBER. Image: AMBER

Relocating from UK to Ireland

The limitations and even the perceptions of border controls will make Ireland an increasingly attractive destination for students and researchers – both within and without Europe – as the only English-speaking EU location with a significant research base.

The universities here are keen and prepared to exploit these opportunities as they arise.

The SFI professorship scheme has been one tool that has allowed centres such as the Bernal Institute in the University of Limerick to recruit English academics at the height of their career, in fields such as polymer composite engineering.

The years to come for Irish and UK science

However, the biggest opportunity for Ireland may lie in deeper UK engagements that enable UK researchers to work with their Irish counterparts and exploit the existing EU funding schemes.

Joint academic appointments and joint studentships may enable researchers with the best of both worlds.

UK researchers will maintain the benefits of collaboration, and it will enhance Ireland’s ability to recruit the highest quality of researchers available outside of the country.

Looking ahead – and with imaginative thinking and collaboration between policymakers and academic institutes – it may be possible to develop joint Ireland-UK research centres and teaching programmes.

The greatest key to unlocking these opportunities is for Ireland to continue the development of Irish research both within academic institutions and companies.

The commitment to science funding in recent years has been laudable and that commitment must continue to grow.

If we are to become a destination of choice for the researchers, it will deepen and enhance the Irish talent pool that will drive the economy in this country for many years to come.

By Michael Morris

Prof Michael Morris is the director of the AMBER materials science research centre at Trinity College Dublin.