Jo Johnson: Britain's economic future must have science and innovation at its absolute core

Posted On: 
13th March 2017

The government has pledged to put science at the heart of its industrial strategy – and has stumped up the cash to match its rhetoric. But amid continuing uncertainty over Brexit, will researchers get the assurances they need? We talk to science minister Jo Johnson

"We are fully committed to backing our scientists and staying at the cutting edge for years to come.”
Paul Heartfield

As he left 10 Downing Street after talks with the prime minister last month, the frontrunner in the race to be the next French president stopped to deliver a message to Britain’s scientists: make France your new home.

“I was very happy to see that academics and researchers in the UK are – because of Brexit – considering coming to France to work,” Emmanuel Macron told gathered reporters. The centrist candidate pledged “a series of initiatives to get talented people in research” to consider leaving the UK behind and crossing the Channel. “I will do everything I can to make France attractive,” he added. 

In the run up to last year’s referendum there were few sectors more united in their opposition to Brexit than science – a commitment to Britain’s place in Europe that was shared by the minister for science, Jo Johnson. But as the man now tasked with persuading those scientists that their future belongs in a post-Brexit UK, Johnson has little time for Macron’s invitation. 

“The prime minister has made it crystal clear that we want to remain the go-to nation for science and innovation,” he tells The House as we sit down in his 1 Victoria Street office. “London and the UK are great melting pots of talent. We have real hotbeds of expertise and excellence throughout the UK. Of course it’s always going to be a competitive market for global talent. [But] we have no difficulty in attracting world class researchers and scientists to this country.”

With the government just days away from triggering Article 50, Johnson finds himself overseeing a sector that is brimming with potential and on the cusp of a new technological revolution, yet fearful about what Brexit will mean. Uncertainty over access to research funding and in particular the status of EU nationals working in UK universities and research institutes has led to a feeling of unease, and Theresa May’s indication that she will prioritise ending free movement over other considerations has done little to reassure those who fear Brexit will exact a high price on UK science.  

Answers to many of their concerns will not come until well into the Brexit negotiations, but as the government stacks sandbags for the potential storm to come, Johnson has impressed many in the sector in his efforts to soothe their worst fears. 

At the centre of his pitch is the government’s Modern Industrial Strategy, which he describes as a “truly unprecedented” vote of confidence in British innovation. 

“Brexit has created a big opportunity for us to make the most of a clean slate – to put our Industrial Strategy front and centre of what this government is all about,” he says.

“The lesson of Brexit is that we need an economy that works for everybody, delivering jobs and opportunities for people in all parts of the country. The Industrial Strategy is an important part of our delivery on that, and putting science and innovation at the heart of it is a very strong signal that we want more people in this country to have high wage, high value opportunities.”

As part of the Strategy, the government announced £229m of new funding for a world class advanced materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre of excellence for life and physical sciences. This follows on from the chancellor’s pledge last year to ramp up spending on science and innovation by £4.7bn by 2020-21.

“This is the single biggest increase in R&D expenditure in nearly 40 years,” Johnson says. “We really recognise that our economic future has to have science and innovation at its absolute core. And we’re matching our rhetoric with resources.”

The second major plank of the plan involves the establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a new funding body – to be led by Sir John Kingman and Sir Mark Walport – which brings the seven existing research councils under a single umbrella. The idea, Johnson says, is to create a research funding system greater than the sum of its parts. 

“At the moment these are very strong institutions, but they are fragmented and rather siloed in their remits,” he explains.

“Bringing them together in this new organisation gives us something new – a really loud and powerful voice for science both within this country and around the world. At the time when we’ll be looking for new ways of forging collaborations after we leave the European Union, having a body like UKRI will be absolutely indispensable.

“It’s a really significant change, and is going to create a strategic capability for how we do science and innovation in this country.”

Crucially, he continues, the new body will also incorporate Innovate UK – the agency created by Gordon Brown as the Technology Strategy Board – which aims to connect companies and research organisations to identify and drive commercial opportunities.

“One of our shortcomings as a country has been that whilst we’re brilliant at primary research and at scientific discovery, we’re less successful at making the most of those discoveries for commercial purposes – at getting businesses to actually get in there and exploit the discoveries which our scientists are making,” Johnson says.

“The real opportunity in the Industrial Strategy is to ensure that this additional spending generates new opportunities for business to get the most out of it, to create jobs and opportunities in new parts of the country.

“Bringing Innovate UK into UKRI will really help. It will make the business community more aware of the opportunities in the research base, and it will make the researchers more aware of the needs and the opportunities to translate their findings into commercial applications. That is absolutely essential.”

Many of these changes, and the Industrial Strategy as a package, have been welcomed by researchers. But the underlying uncertainty created by Brexit remains a concern.

In last week’s Budget statement Philip Hammond again impressed the science and technology sectors by pledging more funding for research into robotics, a next-generation 5G mobile network and the development of driverless cars and electric vehicle batteries. But his decision to set aside a multi-billion pound war-chest to help mitigate any negative impact of leaving the EU also serves as a reminder of the scale of the challenge the government faces as it begins the hard work of negotiation with Brussels and other EU capitals over the coming months.

And with deals to be reached on matters as complex as access to the single market, freedom of movement and the status of UK nationals in the EU, question marks remain over how high up science will be on the British negotiators’ list of priorities.  

In a recent report, the Commons Science and Technology Committee warned it was “not convinced” that Britain’s science and research sectors were “at the heart of DExEU’s thinking and planning for Brexit”, and in particular criticised the department’s delay in appointing its own Chief Scientific Adviser ahead of talks.

But Johnson insists the scientific community is front and centre in the government’s strategy, and points out that a “high-level stakeholder forum” meets regularly with DExEU minister Robin Walker to discuss the issues that will affect the university and research sectors.

“We all have access to the Government Office for Science, led by Professor Sir Mark Walport, who is providing excellent advice into not just this department but also the Cabinet Office and the Department for Exiting the EU. So they are not short of excellent advice as to how to make sure the interest of science are taken into account,” he says. 

“But we recognise that there are still uncertainties out there and we’re working hard with colleagues across government to address them as rapidly as we can,” he adds, pointing out that the government has already moved quickly to clarify the status of EU students over the next two academic years.

One major area of remaining uncertainty is over funding – including the future the EU’s flagship research programme, Horizon 2020 – and collaboration on European and international projects.

The Treasury pledged last August to underwrite any grants from Horizon 2020 that are secured while Britain is still a member of the EU, even if those projects outlast the UK’s membership – a promise Johnson says has provided “significant reassurance to the research community”.

But researchers point out that the impact of Brexit goes far beyond the balance sheet. A report from the union Prospect last week warned that British scientists face being relegated to a secondary role in major European research projects over the coming years, and found that more than one in ten STEM professionals plan to leave the UK, while a further two in ten are undecided about their future. 

The fear is that British researchers – now seen as less of an asset with Brexit approaching – are being ‘bumped off’ EU grant applications. Speaking to this magazine last month, Sheffield University vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett warned he was seeing examples of British researchers being “gently encouraged” by their EU partners to demote themselves from lead status on bids.

But Johnson insists that “there is absolutely no cause whatsoever to stop European institutions or European researchers from collaborating as normal with British researchers”. “We remain, for the time being, full members of the EU and fully eligible to bid for these funding streams. We want our institutions to continue to bid successfully during this period of time.”  

What happens beyond 2020, when the EU begins its next phase of research funding, is unknown. In her major speech setting out the plan for Brexit in January, the prime minister said the government would “welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies” – a move some in the science sector saw as a wink and a nudge that the UK will seek to stay in and contribute to EU projects like Horizon. 

Does Johnson hope a deal on access can be reached? “These are questions which we will address as part of the negotiations,” he replies. “But there is absolutely no doubt at all that we will continue to collaborate internationally as a research and development powerhouse.

“We are one of the strongest science countries in the world. We are a desirable partner for science and research collaborations. We want that to continue.

“That’s why the spending settlement that we’ve just announced is so important – it shows the world that we are fully committed to backing our researchers and scientists and staying at the cutting edge of science for years to come.”