Jo Johnson has been the Member of Parliament for Orpington since 2010 and became Minister of State for the Cabinet Of ce in July 2014. Following the May 2015 general election, he became the Minister for Universities and Science. He is the youngest son of Stanley Johnson and sister to Rachel Johnson both previous contributors to Boisdale Life.
Anyone who wants to know why we’d be mad to leave the European Union should speak to our vice-chancellors. Some represent universities that were hubs of scholarship long before many of the constituent member states of the European Union even came into existence. Monks flocked to our centres of learning from Paris, Bologna and Salamanca in the Middle Ages, and over the years, our own scholars bene ted from reciprocal hospitality across Europe.
Today these continental networks are deeper than ever and help explain why our universities dominate global rankings. We have three out of the world’s top 10 and ten of the world’s top 50 universities. They produce phenomenal research that offers tremendous bang per buck for the taxpayer.
With just one per cent of the world’s population and three per cent of the world’s research and development budget, we account for a thumping 16 percent share of high impact research articles. Take Cambridge, for example. It now has more Nobel prizes to its name – 92 – than any other institution and is leading the way when it comes to turning its research networks into good business.
With more than 1,500 tech companies, employing nearly 60,000 people, it is the most successful innovation cluster in Europe. After MIT and Stanford, it’s third in the world. As one of the most powerful engines of Britain’s knowledge economy, our university system is a national asset of supreme importance.
The big question, then, for the vice- chancellors is how much of this success is due to our membership of the EU?
Let’s be clear. Many factors explain this success. Britain will always be a player in science. We have been a science superpower since the dawn of the Enlightenment and our scientific temper and spirit of discovery will help us thrive either way. The issue, though, is whether we’d be as strong as we could be, without the funding, the easy access to talent and the partnerships that we gain through our membership of the EU. Let’s start with the funding. European research funding offers an important example of how the EU can get it right – and of how we bene t from having a seat at the table when the rules are framed in Brussels. We in Britain have successfully argued for EU research money only to ow to where the best science is done, regardless of geography or pork barrel pressures. And because of the excellence of our research base, it is no surprise that the UK is one of the most successful players in EU research programmes, benefitting disproportionately from EU research funds.
We put in around 12% of all EU funding, but win around 15% of research money, making us one of the largest beneficiaries of EU science programmes. That equated to €7 billion under the last framework programme (2007 to 2013), making us one of the largest net beneficiaries of EU research funding. In this funding round, Horizon 2020, we have to date secured 15.4% of funds, behind only Germany on 16.5%, and with the second largest number of project participations. Our great universities flourish under this system.
Cambridge topped the list of EU universities in the last funding programme. Oxford, Imperial and UCL took positions 2, 3 and 4. Since 2014, over 300 European Research Council grants have gone to researchers in the UK. Over 100 of these have gone to Cambridge University alone: more than any other university and more than many entire countries!
Some will make the point that non-EU countries also bene t from EU science programmes. That is true. But there is a fundamental difference. They may be part of the European Research Area, but they don’t get a seat at the table when the Council or Parliament are setting these rules or deciding the budgets. Of course, our scientists would always be able to call for support from the UK government. Indeed, since 2010 we have protected the science budget at a time of significant savings elsewhere.
The recent Spending Review was the clearest signal yet that science and innovation sit at the very heart of this government’s economic plan. But we should not pretend replacing these rich additional European funding streams would be easy when there are so many competing claims on public funds.
The arguments go beyond funding, of course. We don’t, we can’t and we shouldn’t operate in isolation.
To keep our knowledge factories winning Nobel prizes and attracting the best minds, we need to recognise that research these days is rarely a solitary undertaking, or even a narrowly national one.
Einstein was the sole author of his papers on relativity. The scientific paper announcing the detection of gravitational waves – which this year proved him right, a century later – had more than 1000 international authors. Around half of all UK research publications now involve collaborations with other countries. Such papers have almost twice the citation impact of those by a single UK author. And EU countries are among our most crucial partners, representing nearly half of all those overseas academic collaborators.
Our links with Europe are deep and longstanding. Free movement of people makes it easier for our universities to attract the best brains, and for British students to spread their wings across the continent. Over 125,000 EU students are studying at UK universities, and over 200,000 British university students have ventured overseas on the Erasmus plus exchange programme. These are life-changing opportunities and I want many more to have the chance to study overseas that I enjoyed in my twenties – studying in France and in Belgium.
The truth is that the modern knowledge economy is built on collaboration and partnership. It depends on teams of researchers working together across borders. To thrive in the Information Economy we need to be open to the world, we need to be innovative, and we need to be building academic partnerships with our close neighbours, not turning our backs on them. Our competitors in other countries will not hang around during a decade of uncertainty that might follow a vote for Brexit. They will seize the opportunity to win new investment and build new research links. All this: at a time when the world economy remains extremely fragile.