Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:36 pm on 19th December 2016.

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Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Conservative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport 8:36 pm, 19th December 2016

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate.

Following June’s historic referendum, I have been working closely with institutions and businesses in my constituency to ensure that, now more than ever, science and technological institutions have the right frameworks to secure as much funding as possible, before and after we leave the EU. I want to put this in context. Plymouth has a global reputation for marine science engineering research, not only through Plymouth University, which is well known for its technology work, but through the Royal Navy, the National Marine Aquarium, the fishing industry, the Marine Biological Association, which was set up in the 1870s to explore whether we could ever over-fish our waters, and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory did a great deal of research into CO2 emissions and global warming. I am not surprised; after all, Captain Robert Falcon Scott was a Plymouth boy. I pay tribute to Stephen de Mora, chief executive of PML, for the work that he and his team have done in preparing me for today’s debate. Both PML and the Marine Biological Association do much for science and technological research—not only in the south-west, but throughout the rest of the country. They have links with South Korea, and together they have done much research into the movement of plankton in and around Antarctica—plankton are a key part of the diet of fish; without them, we would not have all those fish that we like eating.

I was pleased that in his recent autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that the Government are committed to making science and research a lynchpin of our economy after Brexit by taking steps towards increasing science spending, as the Science and Technology Committee had previously urged. I am also pleased that the Government have provided reassurance to the science and research community by promising to maintain the funding that now comes from EU grants beyond the point when the UK leaves the European Union. That is more important than ever: a Government study recently found that for every £1 of public investment in research and development, the private sector invested a further 136% on average—a pretty good return, as far as I am concerned.

I am unashamedly pro-science. Science contributes to economic growth, enabling the development of new goods and services, attracting inward investment and creating jobs. In February, when the former Prime Minister formally announced the referendum date, my local paper, the great Plymouth Herald, ran an article entitled “19 things EU funding has done for Plymouth”. In 2020, we will commemorate the Mayflower leaving Plymouth to found the American colonies. Interestingly, the strapline for Plymouth used to be “The Spirit of Discovery”, but then, of course, we did have Sir Francis Drake, and an enormous number of scientists have come from Plymouth. However, an incredible 16 of the 19 projects in that article sit within my constituency, with many involving science and research. In short, the funding is vital for industry and for my constituency, although I recognise that not all EU funding is necessarily generous, and I would encourage the Science and Technology Committee to undertake an inquiry into how the situation could be improved.

Statistics on the EU Horizon 2020 programme, published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy earlier this month, indicated that the UK ranks first in terms of participation. Previously published statistics showed that UK-based researchers lead far more projects in Horizon 2020 than researchers from any other nation.

As we leave the EU, I would like the British Government to continue to invest in R and D and to not only work with research and science organisations in the EU but to use this opportunity to forge new alliances with our non-European partners in the US, where a significant amount of research and development takes place, and the far east, including South Korea. Although the costs of development in global research may be higher in the short term, I hope that market forces will make sure we bring them down.

One contentious issue, which we have heard about today, is immigration. I quite understand the Government’s position of not wanting to take the student population out of the figures, but it is really important that we make sure the Government are much more proactive in talking about the number of students. I am very aware that they have to do some work on that.

While I welcome the fact that any non-UK EU citizen who has lived in this country continuously for five years will be allowed to remain here, the Government must get the balance right between protecting those researchers who contribute so much to our science and technology, and listening to the very real concerns about immigration that Members of this House heard on the doorstep during the referendum campaign.

The June referendum’s vote to leave the European Union was historic, providing not only uncertainty but huge opportunities for our excellent science and technology sectors. Let us seize this opportunity to show the world that Britain is open for business and ready to lead from the front when it comes to improving the lives of everyone around the world through science and innovation.