Britain’s knowledge economy will suffer if we leave the EU

Science, technology and innovation benefit from our EU membership

 

Those of us who believe that Britain should remain in the EU do so because we know that staying in makes us a stronger, more prosperous country.

A close look at just one part of our economy – science, technology and innovation – shows just why this is the case.

Producing good, stable, well paid jobs depends on the growth of British companies and the arrival of new ones. Their success relies heavily on a network of innovative companies, researcher and universities (often referred to as the knowledge economy) that produce both cutting edge technology and qualified workers.

The latter is particularly vital given this week’s evidence from MPs on Britain’s looming ‘digital skills crisis’. It is also essential that innovative ideas and investment can easily reach UK firms, something that would be severely affected by leaving the EU.

This is true from start-ups that begin by spinning out of university research departments to major manufacturing firms that rely on British innovation to improve their production.

No wonder then that 87 per cent of London’s tech businesses oppose Brexit or that key sectors like the automotive industry rely on the UK remaining inside the EU.

Our science base plays a vital role across society from the NHS to thousands of small businesses, yet it too is at risk from Brexit.

Some of the work done in our universities and research institutes is ‘blue-sky’ thinking, essential to lay the groundwork for new discoveries, but much of it goes directly towards shaping the products, medicines and technologies developed by British firms.

Thanks to our influence in Europe, UK scientists do very well out the bloc’s main funding program Horizon 2020. But, as Royal Society President Sir Paul Nurse argued over the weekend, it’s not just about money. Joint research and scientific collaboration are underpinned by cooperation between scientists made possible by the EU.

Of course this would not all disappear in the event of Brexit, but it would mean putting up unnecessary barriers to shared research.

That is why key sectors like the life sciences industry have warned of the significant disruption and uncertainty they would face if Britain left the EU.

Last week 13 Nobel Laureates – a group, one assumes, who know what they are talking about – wrote to the Telegraph urging a Remain vote.

Turning research into revenue and into the products we all use requires a steady supply of skilled workers, many of whom study in the UK. Britain’s leading educational institutions have historically made us one of the top destinations for international students – but this is now at risk.

ONS figures last month showed another drop in the number of international student visas, thanks in no small part to the Home Secretary’s off-putting rhetoric and her insistence that foreign students count towards the net migration target.

Brexit would only make matters worse. One recent survey found that 50 per cent of international students would consider the UK a less attractive place to study if it were outside the EU. That’s bad news for a leading export sector and bad news for British firms and their employees who rely on highly qualified staff for expansion.

Turning away international students is particularly shortsighted since, unlike other forms of immigration, there is clear public support for making it easier to attract them in the first place.

A report by British Future showed that 66 per cent of Conservative voters and 64 per cent of Labour voters support taking students out of the net migration target.

It was an argument that Labour made repeatedly at the last election and one that received wide-spread support from British business and universities. Here is yet another example of how international cooperation can be championed as something that works directly for the UK economy.

Science, innovation and manufacturing do not always make for inspiring reading. But their contribution to Britain’s prosperity illustrates one of the many ways that Brexit would make us all worse off.

Charlie Samuda is former Labour Party adviser currently at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieSamuda   

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