The UK needs to improve at building business and innovating on the back of its own scientific discoveries, says Jo Johnson, Conservative Party MP and minister for universities and science.
Speaking at a special briefing on 30 June 2016 about the future of UK science following Brexit, Johnson, a Remain supporter who warned before the referendum that leaving the EU was not in the best interests of business, also reassured scientists that they would not be discriminated against with EU science projects while the UK remained a member of the EU.
Johnson’s reassurances come amid reports of growing fears within the science industry that the EU referendum result will impact on the roles of British researchers in European science collaborations funded through the Horizon 2020 programme, the EU’s flagship research funding programme.
At the event, which was held in the London headquarters of the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust, Johnson – brother of fellow Conservative MP and former London Mayor Boris Johnson – said that he had raised concerns about potential discrimination in pre-emptive talks with the EU science commissioner, Carlos Moedas, adding that he would act on any evidence of unfair treatment by bringing it to the commissioner’s attention.
British universities receive around £1bn from the EU each year, amounting to 10% of their total research funds.
Paul Nurse, Nobel prizewinner and director of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre in London, told a press conference on 29 June 2016 that Brexit was the greatest threat to British science in living memory. “Science thrives on the permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimises barriers and are open to free exchange and collaboration,” he said.
“For science to thrive it must have access to the single market, and we do need free movement.”
But when asked at the Wellcome Trust briefing if he could guarantee free movement of scientists, Johnson said: “I can’t commit to any particular definition of freedom of movement for you, but it is obviously going to be important that the UK remains open to the brightest and best from the EU and from around the world.
“We’re not going to stop brilliant people from coming to work in our universities and science institutes, there would be no purpose to that,” he added. “We are going to remain an open outward-looking confident country and science is going to be at the forefront of the next stage of our economic growth.”
Johnson also pointed out that other countries have been known to develop and market UK research after the UK has discovered it, therefore getting the economic benefits. “We know the stories – from the early days of computing to pioneering imaging techniques, such as medical ultrasound and CT scanning,” he said.
“Less than 10% of British innovation derives from our research base – that is a far lower proportion than many other OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries,” he added. In Switzerland, for example, over 20% of innovation comes directly from its research base.
“There is a considerable benefit from having a closer relationship between industry and academia and we see this throughout the country and this is something that we do need to encourage,” he said.