A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Facing the Brexit challenge

R&D and innovation will be key to grasping any opportunities that arise after Britain leaves the EU

Significant investment in research and development is required to prepare Ireland for the post-Brexit landscape.

Significant investment in research and development is required to prepare Ireland for the post-Brexit landscape.


Brexit is likely to present significant difficulties to Irish industry, with elements of the food sector looking particularly vulnerable. Whether to manage knock-backs or to winkle out opportunities, innovation will be key. To achieve it, significant investment in research and development is required.

“Brexit is a huge challenge and to cope we are going to have to fully grasp whatever opportunities emerge,” says John Donoghue of IFAC, a professional services co-operative that specialises in the farming, agri-business and food sectors.

“For example, there is a sense of opportunity emerging now in the prepared foods sector, on the basis that imports of processed foods from the UK is likely to be impacted by Brexit.” If there is scope for import substitution – or indeed supply chain opportunities arising from the UK’s departure from the EU, firms here will need to ready themselves for it. “R&D and innovation is going to have a huge role to play in that,” he says.

Ensuring a strong pipeline of research talent will be vital. A possible silver lining on that front too is that once the UK leaves the EU, Ireland might attract talented researchers keen to stay within the EU and eligible for a share of its €80 billion Horizon 2020 research budget.

Ireland is already beginning to attract top-notch researchers, with an announcement imminent of a “stellar” US performer due to take up a joint appointment at an Irish university and Oxford University.

Prior to Brexit, that person would have chosen simply to go to Oxford, says Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland.

“This is a top performer who wants to leave the US but won’t go to Oxford full time because of Brexit and won’t come to Ireland full time because it’s too small,” he says.

‘High-calibre people’

The hope is that this person could be the first of many. “If we manage this properly, we can attract some really high-calibre people. I see it as a stepping stone to getting them to come here full time and definitely Brexit has levelled the playing field to some extent. Pre-Brexit, this person would have gone to Oxford, the world number one.”

SFI is also developing a shared PhD student scheme which will see it fund 120 PhD students to spend half their time in the UK and the UK will fund the same number of students to spend half their time in Ireland. It’s an important means of keeping research channels between the two countries open at a time of uncertainty.

“I think it’s fair to say that whatever happens, Brexit is likely to erect more barriers than it takes down. This initiative will allow 240 students to experience the benefits of both countries, the best of British and the best of Irish, and that’s going to be important to defray any stereotypes that might grow up post-Brexit. Even if it weren’t for Brexit, it would be a good thing to do anyway,” say Prof Ferguson.

The impact of Brexit on the commercial R&D landscape is hard to predict too. “Depending on the final outcome, the British government may well seek to improve their already competitive R&D tax incentives and intellectual property exploitation regimes,” says Ken Hardy, head of KPMG’s R&D Incentives practice

“As a nation, we will need to be nimble and respond to any competitive challenges that may arise. Furthermore, we will need to see what impact Brexit may have on foreign direct investment in the R&D space. I would hope that Ireland may benefit by attracting a larger share of FDI, from the US in particular, where hi-tech companies may be seeking a European footprint, in a business-friendly environment.”