I thank the Chair and members for inviting Science Foundation Ireland to address the committee. Science Foundation Ireland is the Government’s largest competitive funder of scientific and engineering research in Ireland. The agency supports outstanding research in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which promote and assist the development and competitiveness of industry, enterprise and employment in Ireland. Science Foundation Ireland makes competitive grants or awards based upon merit review for excellence and impact by international distinguished scientists. This results in the agency administering research projects of global scale and international excellence, with a high potential to deliver impact for the Irish economy and society. Research projects supported by Science Foundation Ireland often take place in partnership with industry, charities and other research funders, both national and international, several of which are located in the UK.
We are at a moment of opportunity for research and innovation in Ireland. There are challenges associated with Brexit, particularly for our research colleagues in the UK, but there are also significant opportunities for Ireland. There are actions we can take to mitigate the risks, enhance our relationships and support the Irish research community to exploit the opportunities from an otherwise uncertain period. We need to act quickly and intelligently as other countries are exploiting these opportunities too. Since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, I have been taking proactive steps to enhance relationships between research stakeholders in Ireland and in the UK, both research performing and funding organisations, and we have developed a strategy to help Ireland capitalise on these opportunities. Senior members of Science Foundation Ireland staff participate in relevant Government-led Brexit committees and the agency has an internal Brexit working group, led by a director, to ensure agency wide co-ordination.
I will outline some of relevant facts about research in the UK and in Ireland and how the system across both jurisdictions could be impacted upon by Brexit. I will then move on to inform the committee in more detail about the opportunities, strategies and actions that Science Foundation Ireland is putting in place.
I submitted to the committee a detailed appendix of the data relating to Brexit. That flows from two principal sources: the Royal Institution and the four UK learned academies, namely, the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Those bodies have identified four areas in research that are important for Brexit: funding, mobility, collaboration and regulation. The first three of those are about mitigating the risks. The fourth is an opportunity for the UK. Based on these detailed analyses, I will highlight the relevant facts that are important for the Irish consideration.
The UK is a scientific powerhouse with many excellent universities which contribute to its high international standing. For example, the University of Oxford is rated number one in the world. The European Union provides funding for research and innovation through three principal streams. The first is the EU framework programme for research and innovation, which is usually called Horizon 2020. The second is the European Structural and Investment Funds - often the European regional development fund in Ireland - and the third is loans from the European Investment Bank. These three sources are the main sources of EU funding for research. Although the UK is a net contributor to the European Union, within the narrow focus of research and innovation the UK contributes approximately 12.5%, which is €5.4 billion, and wins 15.9%, which is €8.8 billion, back from the programmes. Therefore, the UK wins back more in research than it contributes, although, as I said, it is a net contributor to the overall EU budget. Some 80% of the UK-won EU research and innovation funding flows to UK universities, with a low uptake of less than 20% by UK industry, which is mostly SMEs. Five UK universities - University of Cambridge, University College London, University of Oxford, Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh - are ranked among the top ten universities in Europe in terms of winning EU research and innovation funding, that is, half of the European top 10 is dominated by the UK. The top 10 UK universities win 50% of the UK funding.
It is unclear whether the UK will negotiate access to any of the EU scientific programmes post Brexit and, if it does, what restrictions might be placed on those programmes. For example, it may not be allowed to lead major programmes. If the UK negotiated access on the same terms as Norway and Switzerland, as third countries, it would end up as a net contributor to the programme at 21.9%. At the moment, it is a net beneficiary. It is unclear whether the UK would choose to pay for these non-monetary benefits as opposed to developing their own schemes, for example, with the Commonwealth, the United States, China or Japan.
The vast majority - more than 90% - of UK researchers collaborate overseas. Approximately 17% of the staff in UK universities, or 33,735 individuals, are EU 27, non-British, nationals. That percentage increases significantly in the research-intensive universities such as University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London. Some 23% of all UK university staff in biological, mathematical and physical sciences are EU 27, non-British, citizens. It has been estimated that many of these would not quality for a UK visa under the current UK regulations.
Internationalisation of higher education is a common and increasing global phenomenon and the UK is absolutely at the forefront in this regard. More than 42,000 UK tertiary-level students are studying abroad, among which more than 35% are in an EU country, including 9.9%, or 2,106 individuals, in Ireland. Some 14% of PhD students, or 12,000 individuals, currently registered in the UK universities are EU 27 nationals. The UK is also a very popular destination for both overseas students and visiting overseas students and researchers, for example, through the EU ERASMUS and Marie Skodowska-Curie programmes. On ERASMUS programmes, the UK receives 30,183 students from other EU countries and sends out 14,801 students to other EU countries. The UK dominates the EU Marie Skodowska-Curie programme with 2,233 participations. This is many more than any other EU country - for example, Ireland has 216 participations - and is largely due to the UK’s scientific excellence and native English language. Those are a few figures - there are many more - that kind of paint the picture of the UK research establishment with Brexit.
We will now examine the scientific challenges for Ireland. In the European scientific research framework programme Horizon 2020, Ireland has set an ambitious national target to win €1.25 billion of funding over the lifetime of the programme. This is more than double our performance in the previous framework programme 7. If achieved, it would result in Ireland drawing down more than €300 million more than it contributes. This is an ambitious target and I am pleased to report that we are on track to achieve it. In simple terms, the target means that we have to double our performance. We have to lead and win - those two words are important - more big projects as well as small projects.
We have to lead and win more big projects.
What impact would the loss of the UK as a potential collaborator in EU programmes have on Ireland? We have done a formal analysis of the EU eCORDA database, which indicates that of all the successful Irish projects in Horizon 2020, only 11.5% involve the UK as a collaborator. As a percentage, this figure is similar to Irish collaborations with other major European countries, for example Germany at 11.3%, and to peer countries in Europe such as Denmark and Finland. In all cases, these collaborations occur in multi-partner projects so they are not exclusive UK-Ireland relationships. Ireland is not overly dependent on the UK for scientific collaboration in successful EU programmes as 88% of them do not involve UK collaboration. Furthermore, analysis of the successful EU Horizon 2020 projects with Ireland as a contributor show that only 10% of them were led by the UK, which is 9.1% of the funding. If this is analysed across disciplines, it is fairly evenly spread between energy, ICT and medical. The analysis shows Ireland is not critically dependent on the UK in a specific domain of science and is not critically dependent on the UK to lead scientific projects or as a main collaborator. Nonetheless, the UK is important. It is a manageable situation. If the UK exits the Horizon 2020 programmes, even if it does not participate in the European programmes, we can manage. We will have to manage by diversifying the funding base within Ireland but with good planning it is a manageable situation.
Other potential challenges to Ireland from the loss of the UK within the EU include the loss of a like-minded ally, for example in negotiations on framework programme 9 where emphasis on research excellence and protecting the civilian nature of the programme are important. Not all EU countries would necessarily see that. It is really important because there will be a smaller budget because the EU will not have the contribution from the UK. There could be a severe impact on Northern Ireland because 54% of Northern Ireland EU projects come via a North-South collaboration. We are not overly dependent on the UK but Northern Ireland is very dependent on Southern Ireland for its collaborations.
What are the opportunities? I have outlined some of the challenges, which are manageable. There are a number of opportunities for Ireland from Brexit. First, we could increase our success in the European programmes. We could lead large, ambitious projects which would previously have been led by the UK. It is clearly an opportunity. Second, we could attract outstanding researchers to Ireland. There are a large number of EU 27 nationals in the UK, some of whom might feel uncomfortable; they might think about leaving and we could attract them. Third, we could attract outstanding international students to Ireland. The UK is a favoured destination for those students. We also speak English and have excellent research facilities.
We could attract excellent international visiting researchers to Ireland. For example, we could capture some of the Marie Curie applicants. We must have significantly enhanced bilateral research links with the UK. I will come on to that. We could act as a bridge between the UK and the EU. There are opportunities within Ireland.
Having said all of that, what is the strategy for research, scientific research and innovation post-Brexit? Science Foundation Ireland’s strategy is first to diversify and strengthen our scientific research collaborations with EU 27 countries so as to maintain excellence and performance irrespective of UK participation. That strategy has commenced. For example, we are jointly funding a project with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which is one of the leading research organisations in Germany. We will be strengthening relationships with other EU countries. It is an obvious thing to do.
The second strategy is to strengthen and enhance all our bilateral research links with the United Kingdom. Irrespective of the outcome of its final negotiations with the EU, the UK will remain a scientific powerhouse. By strengthening our relationships with the UK, it does not matter what the final outcome is. If they are within the EU programmes, we will both jointly win. If they are out then we will need those bilateral collaborations because we will not be able to avail of the current EU mechanisms. It is very important. To that end, Science Foundation Ireland has strengthened its collaborations with all of the major UK science funding agencies, namely, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust. We jointly fund with all of those agencies. It is a single application. They fund a research team in the UK and we fund a research team in Ireland and both teams can collaborate. That is how it works. The appendix provided to the committee outlines in detail those collaborative arrangements. It is very important. It is something we have already done and we need to strengthen those links.
We are going to go further. We will launch an initiative aimed at stimulating the exchange of PhD students between the 16 Science Foundation Ireland research centres that are hosted by all seven Irish universities, some of the institutes of technology and four or more leading UK universities, namely, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London. We will fund 30 PhD students a year in Ireland to spend half their time in the UK at those institutions under joint supervision. The UK will fund 30 students a year who will spend half their time in Ireland under joint supervision. It is about stimulating young people moving between excellent institutions within the UK and Ireland.
The third thing we will do is to recruit excellent researchers to Ireland. Given the potential challenges posed by Brexit for scientific research in the UK, there are some people who are thinking of leaving. We would like them to think of Ireland. If there are excellent people thinking of leaving for whatever reason, we should try to attract them to Ireland. Star researchers matter. They attract the best students and companies and maintain our international reputation. Ireland has significantly gone up the scientific rankings and is now ranked tenth in the world. Before Science Foundation Ireland, we were 48th in the world. We have gone up at least one place every year in the past five years. The status of Irish research is good. Our capacity to attract very good people is there. Science Foundation Ireland, together with the higher education institutes in Ireland, has put together the SFI research professorship programme to attract star researchers. Brexit provides an opportunity there. We will also recruit future research leaders and more junior researchers who may be thinking of leaving the EU. We will also put in place joint appointments with the four UK leading universities, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London and University College London so people can be appointed jointly between those institutions and one of the UK institutions I have named and spend at least 40% of their time in Ireland. It is important and may allow us to attract a calibre of person we would not otherwise attract. All of those are new things we plan to put in place as part of our Brexit strategy and in terms of enhancing our links with the UK.
Other measures will be attracting international students and researchers to Ireland. It is very important. The Government strategy, Innovation 2020, calls out for an increase in the number of PhD students of 500 per year. We believe that as a result of Brexit we will be able to recruit very high calibre people who would otherwise have gone to the UK.
Innovation 2020, the Government's strategy for science, engineering, mathematics research is a very good strategy. It is being rolled out, budget permitting, to really build up from the strong and growing research base. There are significant opportunities we should seize. Every other country is putting in place similar mechanisms. There are some risks we need to mitigate but they are manageable. With proper planning and the appropriate budget from Science Foundation Ireland and with the help of the universities and higher education institutes in Ireland, we will be able to manage the Brexit situation. We may be able to get some positive opportunity. I am cognisant of the fact there are many challenges to Ireland from Brexit and there are perhaps few places where there are opportunities. This is one of them.
We should seize the opportunities presented by Brexit.