Academics are queuing up to make the case for staying in the EU. But almost all the larger R&D-intensive companies have kept their heads down. Why?

Science is a vital part of the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Some eighteen per cent of EU funding returned to the UK is for research. The UK is a net contributor to the EU across the board, but a net beneficiary in science. Businesses are responsible for around two-thirds of research and development (R&D) investment in the UK, with firms headquartered overseas making up half of that figure – by far the highest proportion among G7 countries.

Against that background, I expected business to have plenty to say during the recent inquiry into ‘EU membership and UK science’ by the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology, for which I was the specialist advisor. Amidst lively exchanges between pro-leave and pro-remain campaign groups, the House of Lords conducted a calm analysis of the evidence on the scientific dimensions of the EU debate. Around eighty written submissions and thirty expert witnesses set out arguments and analysis.

Academics were queueing up to have their say. University groups, professional institutions, top laboratories and national academies set out their stalls. The European Commission sent written evidence. Witnesses flew over from Switzerland. Jo Johnson, the science minister, and Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, both appeared in person, as did the chief scientist from the Foreign Office.

However, big businesses – the UK’s largest investors in R&D – were almost invisible. A few smaller firms and trade associations made valuable contributions but the CBI and almost all the larger R&D-intensive companies kept their heads down.

Why are they so silent? We can only guess at their motives, so let’s do just that.

A large majority of scientists support continued membership of the EU. They are clustered towards one end of a more evenly balanced spectrum of public opinion. Some business leaders have taken sides in the wider debate but corporate R&D is not often visible from such stratospheric heights. Those responsible for business investment in R&D are seldom in a position to set corporate policy on a highly charged issue like the EU debate. Any desire to speak up on science will be balanced against worries about upsetting diverse customer and investor communities, and fear of backing the losing side in a heated political contest…

Graeme Reid is Strategic Advisor to the National Centre for Universities and Business and professor of science and research policy at University College London

First published on 12 May 2016. Please visit The Guardian website for the full article.

Image above: Sygneta, the Swiss agrochemicals firm, is an example of a large player in European research with a significant UK presence. Scientists at its Jealott’s Hill Research Centre in Berkshire work closely with colleagues in Basel, Stein and Münchwilen in Switzerland. Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters