Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:49 pm on 19th December 2016.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy) 6:49 pm, 19th December 2016

The American physicist Dr Michio Kaku calls science “the engine of prosperity”, and that is certainly true for us in the United Kingdom. In 2015, the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that for every £1 invested by the Government on research and development, we got back 20p to 30p each and every year in perpetuity.

I am a strong believer in science for science’s sake—it is part of our innate humanity to seek to push forward the bounds of knowledge—but we must also recognise that as far as the UK economy is concerned science investment is the gift that keeps on giving. Our world-renowned science sector plays a huge role in economic growth and the creation of jobs: 20% of the UK workforce are employed in science roles, and employees earn 40% more than the average wage in these high-skilled, well-paid jobs.

The UK punches above its weight on science. As the Minister said, we represent just 0.9% of the global population, but we produce a staggering 16% of the world’s most significant research citations. We are the home of Stephen Hawking, Ernest Rutherford and the discoverer of the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs may have been at Edinburgh University, but I am proud to say that he was born in Elswick in Newcastle.

Despite such a proud history, we lag behind on investment. Since 2012, UK public sector spending on science has fallen to below 0.5% of our GDP, the lowest level in any G8 country. The UK has long been known for its research and development, but we are at risk of losing that reputation and the rewards we reap for our economy and jobs if the Government refuse to support science through Brexit.

The UK’s world-leading position in technology, research and development is thanks in part to our integration with and the contribution of our soon-to-be ex-partners in the European Union. The Minister mentioned Horizon 2020, and £1 in every £6 spent on science by the European Union is spent in the United Kingdom. I know from my own constituency that scientists not only benefit from EU funding, but from the highly skilled researchers and scientists it brings with it.

Newcastle University employs nearly 600 staff from various European Union countries. European Union funding allows it to retain and attract talented researchers through prestigious European Research Council grants. For example, there are the Marie Sklodowska-Curie individual fellows, 50 of whom are hosted by Newcastle University, which equates to €11 million in research funding. Some of Newcastle’s leading research centres would not be possible without European Union staff. For example, in the John Walton muscular dystrophy research centre team, which is pioneering treatments for children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, more than 30% of staff are European and three of its four lead academics are from the European Union. Many right hon. and hon. Members will have similar examples in their constituencies.

Leaving the European Union presents our science and research sectors with numerous challenges in relation to process, timing, funds, skills, creativity and resources, and the Government have a duty to address those challenges. However, as highlighted in the Science and Technology Committee’s most recent report, the Government’s communication of its Brexit and science strategy—the Minister’s speech notwithstanding—has been woefully insufficient. Why is science not at the heart of the Government’s Brexit strategy when it is at the heart of our economy?

The Government say they will match the funding until the Horizon 2020 programme expires, but that suggests they are planning to withdraw from the scheme thereafter. The Royal Society has estimated that the programme accounts for 22.2% of global research programmes, which is higher than either China’s or the US’s contributions to global research. Why would we seek to withdraw from such a scheme? We receive significantly more from the EU than we pay in: we received €8.8 billion between 2007 and 2013, as against the €5.4 billion we paid in. We do not have to lose access to the framework programmes, because 13 non-member states currently enjoy associate country status, which gives them full access to Horizon 2020 funding and the same status as member states.

The benefits of involvement in European Union programmes are not confined to funding. Contrary to the picture painted by many in the leave campaign, EU science and technology institutions actually reduce bureaucracy and streamline administration processes. For example, they prevent the same work from being done in different labs, they spread good practice within the European scientific community and they harmonise clinical trial regulations. The last is absolutely critical for the diffusion and adoption of innovative new treatments on which many lives depend.

In addition, cross-border and cross-discipline collaboration has benefits for innovation and creativity that cannot be expressed in pounds, shillings and pence—or in euros. If the Government pursue their commitment to ending existing European Union freedom of movement arrangements, these benefits will be jeopardised. In 2014, Switzerland held a referendum blocking free movement for Croatian nationals, and that led directly to their suspension from Horizon 2020.

The Conservatives cannot call themselves the party of business while actively working to undermine our science and technology sectors. The Prime Minister’s astounding refusal to reassure European Union nationals living in this country that they will continue to be able to do so and the Home Secretary’s reported plans to halve student visa numbers highlight their failure to recognise the potency of British scientific research in the wider British economy. We are entering a fourth industrial revolution and technological advancement is central to the way in which we work, but the Government are seeking to curtail our access to the brightest and best in science, as well as curtailing opportunities for our own citizens to work and study abroad.

The Conservatives’ current policy is more about short-term political point scoring than their now forgotten long-term economic plan. We do not hear so much about that now, do we? Indeed, as the vice-chancellor of one our leading universities recently said about student visas, “politics is trumping economics”. Of course, the Tories have form in this area. Under the last Tory Government, science spending was squeezed. Indeed, the Save British Science campaign was launched in 1986 in response to the then Thatcher Government’s woeful record on science and research. However, between 1997 and 2007, Labour more than doubled the science budget, from £1.3 billion to £3.4 billion, and it reached almost £4 billion by 2010. The Save British Science campaign had to be renamed the Campaign for Science and Engineering, because British science had been saved by Labour.

The boost to the R and D budget in the autumn statement has been widely welcomed, but we must set it against the backdrop of six years of subsistence spending. Not only are we now the lowest funder of science of any G8 country, but our spending as a proportion of GDP has fallen to its lowest point in 20 years. The increases in forecast expenditure also assume that all other spending commitments for science and research will remain in place, safe from sweeping Conservative cuts. Given the party’s previous actions, I believe we should remember the motto of the world’s oldest scientific institute, the Royal Society: “Take nobody’s word for it”.

I began by saying how important science and research are to our economy, and that is why today’s debate is so critical. Science provides the inventions and the infrastructure that propel our industry forward. It uncovers the challenges that we face today and provides our industries with a vision for the future. We in the Labour party recognise that in order to have an industrial strategy that works for each and every member of our society, a thriving science community is key. I asked the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last week whether he would give the UK economy the Christmas present it deserves: an industrial strategy. Sadly, it seems that Santa’s elves are nowhere near ready on this one.

As my hon. Friend Clive Lewis, the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has said, we believe that an industrial strategy should be mission orientated. When it is mission orientated, one of the roles of public spending is to lay down the foundations for new opportunities, which then galvanise businesses—the private sector—to invest. Mariana Mazzucato, the world’s leading economist on mission orientated innovation, has shown how business investment should not be assumed, but created via ambitious public investment policies. However, no matter how excited businesses may get, they will invest only when there is a potential market.

Government can help to create new markets and enlarge existing ones through procurement and, critically, trade agreements. The European Union is possibly the most successful trade agreement in history. It has benefited British companies for decades. Forty-four per cent of UK goods and services went to the European Union in 2015.