Former IChemE President makes the case for chemical engineers post-Brexit

22nd February 2018

Professor Geoffrey Maitland, former President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), spoke to MPs today about the impact of Brexit on chemical engineering in the UK. Speaking on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and IChemE, at the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Brexit: Science and Innovation Summit, Maitland highlighted the work of IChemE’s Brexit Working Group and recent Brexit survey. 

Held at the Institution of Civil Engineers HQ, in London, UK, the summit was split into three parts – People, Funding and Collaboration, and Regulation. Sixteen representatives from UK science and engineering took part in the panel sessions, which were hosted by MPs; including Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb, and Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah.

Neil O’Brien MP chaired the session on ‘People’, mostly looking at how freedom of movement would affect science and engineering. This was a contentious issue amongst the panel members, and those in attendance.

Professor Julia Buckingham, Treasurer of Universities UK said:

“In engineering and technology, almost 60% of the PhD students at my University [Brunel University, London] come from outside the EU. Just 10% come from the UK. It’s worth remembering these students are not working in isolation – they are contributing to a much wider research effort. Without them the productivity of UK research would fall significantly.

“These students are key to our ability going forward, as a nation, to deliver high-quality science and innovation.”

IChemE surveyed over 50 members on the impact of Brexit in February and consulted with its Brexit Working Group and Special Interest Groups in preparation for the summit. The survey found that 82% supported free movement for all engineering professionals, and mutual recognition of qualifications between the UK and EU27 post-Brexit. In recruitment, 37% felt that, in the event of non-UK born EU workers leaving the UK (and UK workers leaving the EU) post-Brexit, there would be no impact on recruiting chemical engineers to their organisation. However more than 50% of those surveyed felt it would be significantly or slightly more difficult.

Vicky Ford MP chaired the Funding and Collaboration session. Professor Maitland was invited as a panel speaker alongside Nesta’s Director for Research and Policy, Jen Rae; Wellcome Trust Director of Policy, Ed Whiting; and Chair of the Russell Group EU Advisory Group, Professor Michael Arthur.

Maitland said:

“Respondents to the IChemE Brexit survey identified fiscal incentives and access to the single market as the preferred government policies to encourage R&D spending in the UK following Brexit. A majority favoured continued participation in Horizon 2020, whilst just under half were currently involved in an EU-funded project.

“Continuing collaboration of some sort with EU research and innovation programmes is crucial along the entire research and innovation pipeline, from academic research to high TRL demonstrators. This is not only about funding, of course, but also about access to people, knowledge, ideas and facilities, all of which facilitate innovation from research idea to commercial reality. This applies both to SMEs, where funding not readily available in the UK can be obtained to make them grow to the stage where they require equity investment, and to large international companies where industrial competitors can collaborate on high cost, high risk cross-border initiatives involving multi-country supply chains. 

“It is important to realise that many of the benefits of EU funding are not intrinsically financial but arise from the availability, easy exchange, and movement of smart people.”

IChemE’s survey also revealed that R&D spending in the UK was a top concern amongst chemical engineers considering Brexit. 67% of respondents thought it would have a strong negative impact on academia, 52% thought it would have a strong negative impact on industry, and 37% thought it would have a strong negative impact on the public sector.

The event concluded with a session on Regulation, chaired by Carol Monaghan MP – a former physics teacher.

Leading up to the Summit, several issues were raised by IChemE members on this topic, including concerns that additional regulatory barriers would have a negative impact on supply chain. Members were also worried that the UK’s progress in process safety regulation would be weakened post-Brexit.

A direct quote from the survey said:

“I'm worried that UK health & safety regulation will diverge from the EU's. The least worst outcome will be that achieving compliance is more complex. The worst outcome is that accidents will rise.”

The event concluded with closing statements from Norman Lamb MP who said:

“I was very keen that the committee should be facilitating this sort of discussion, particularly at the critical stage. Let’s keep the pressure up for an early agreement on the critical issues that affect science – primarily people, which is of such importance. We should not take them for granted, and early agreement on the participation and success of Horizon 2020 is incredibly important for people planning research projects in the here and now.

“You can still submit evidence on the issues we’ve heard today, just visit our website. We will submit all evidence to the Minister in two weeks’ time, so that we can get across the critical issues for the science and engineering community in relation to Brexit.” 

The Summit was live-streamed via YouTube. The recording and transcript will be made available shortly. Those interested in reading the full briefing note on IChemE’s Brexit Survey findings should go to the IChemE website.

If you are an IChemE member, interested in joining the Brexit Working Group, please contact