Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit

12 October 2018

Scientists, policymakers and stakeholders took part in the Science and Stormont event on 8 October to examine the impact of Brexit on STEM and industry in Northern Ireland (NI), with our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, chairing one of the panel discussions.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

Science and Stormont is held annually in Belfast and is organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) with and on behalf of the science and engineering community in NI. The Institute was among the sponsors, and IOP Ireland (IOPI) had a stand at the exhibition during the day to engage with participants and audience members.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

The programme included presentations and three panel discussions, including one led by Professor Hardaker, with IOP Fellow Professor James McLaughlin of Ulster University(pictured left); John McGrane, Director-General of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Professor Sir John McCanny of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) on the panel.

Introducing the session, Professor Hardaker spoke about the importance of physics in NI, referring to our work on the role of physics in the NI economy. Professor McLaughlin discussed NI’s capabilities in STEM, including health technology, and highlighted cross-border work in advanced manufacturing. He said there was a need for a chief scientific adviser in NI who could provide leadership for the science and engineering community, which was a recurring topic during the event.

John McGrane said a withdrawal agreement with the EU should include a lengthy transition period to enable the parties to see how they could work together. There was a great deal of encouragement from the EU member states beyond the UK and Ireland and “everyone wants NI to do well”, he said. Professor McCanny also thought there would be considerable goodwill towards funding developments such as the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) at QUB, which was critical to the creation and growth of the NI Science Park. The ECIT needs around £2.5m funding from universities and £9.5m from external funds each year. Agreements, shared regulatory standards and governance enable us to pool expertise and make developments happen quickly, he said.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

In another session, chaired by the Royal Society of Biology’s Chief Executive, Dr Mark Downs, the panellists were Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Chair of the Irish Research Council; Professor Mark Price, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at QUB (pictured left); and Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University.

Professor Ohlmeyer (below left), who chairs the Republic of Ireland’s Brexit taskforce, said that more than 8,500 students from Ireland go to study in Great Britain each year, while a number also go to NI. If Brexit meant that such students would have to pay international fees to study in the UK, the need for places in Ireland would be so great that another university would be required there to cope with demand, she said. While applications from other EU countries to universities in the Republic of Ireland had risen recently, there had been a drop in applications from Irish students to study in the UK and vice versa. This was bad news, she said, as “education and research are powerful integrators for peace” particularly in the movement of students between the north and south of Ireland.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

Ireland had the potential to become a global hub for research and innovation and to attract the best talent, she said, with scope for bilateral collaboration between Irish universities and those in the rest of the EU and the UK.

Professor Price spoke about the impact of Brexit on NI industry, including energy, transport, textiles, communications and healthcare. Discussing goods imports and labour supply, particularly in food and manufacturing, he said companies such as Seagate, which has a close association with QUB, needed a range of jobs and skills. On the positive side, Brexit could bring a new way of thinking and prosperity, he said, and while NI was small, it had a big opportunity to build on global partnerships.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

Professor Gormley-Heenan (left), who is a political scientist, said it was still not known how Brexit would play out; everyone was still speculating at this stage. The absence of an NI assembly meant there was no single voice for NI in Brexit discussions, she said, and she also wanted to see a chief scientific adviser for NI. Even without considering the effect of Brexit, the devolution of higher education in NI meant that it had suffered sustained funding cuts, which undermined the work of universities. There could be arrangements whereby academics could spend half their time in the south of Ireland and half in NI or the rest of the UK, she said, but people had to be proactive to make it happen.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

The third panel, chaired by Dr Helen Pain (left), Deputy Chief Executive of the RSC, was made up of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs): Caoimhe Archibald, Sinn Féin spokesperson for STEM, higher and further education; Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party in NI; and Peter Weir of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Archibald said the biggest concerns were access to EU funding after Brexit and freedom of movement, including attracting students and staff to NI. The lack of clarity was causing huge concern, she said. Agnew said it was difficult to see the positives of Brexit and he was yet to be convinced that the existing issues would be resolved. He said voters had not known what they were voting for in the referendum.

Scientists and politicians meet in Belfast to discuss the impact of Brexit
RSC

Weir argued that there were positives in Brexit and there was a shift towards students taking STEM subjects at A-level. But during the discussion, our Education and Promotions Adviser for IOPI, Liz Conlon, referenced the concerning statistics showing that entries to A-level physics and the proportion of female entrants had declined in NI.

Discussion included the need for communication between experts and policymakers; it was argued that the NI Assembly All-Party Group on STEM was a good channel to ensure scientific advice would be fed into government. To make the case for what the science community wants post-Brexit, there was a need for clear, distilled information, the panellists agreed.



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