Scientific research is one of the United Kingdom’s biggest assets, and we must ensure that Brexit provides us with an opportunity. We are in a position to critique and improve on aspects of EU legislation that hold back our development, to adopt the policies that have benefited us, and to create a Britain that is increasingly outward-looking and pioneering in science and research.
Many sectors claim that their people are their greatest asset, but this is most clear in the area of scientific research and innovation, where individual qualities count for so much, skills need to be developed over a period of years, and there is a great deal of specialisation. The search for and recruitment of talented engineers and scientists is already very challenging, and the potential for a barrier to go up between the UK and the EU is a great concern. I was pleased that the Prime Minister attempted to resolve this problem to enable the 1.3 million British subjects living in the EU to remain there and the 3.3 million EU citizens to remain here, but disappointed that Donald Tusk, playing politics with peoples’ lives, rebuffed the proposal.
When discussing migration, especially in the context of Brexit, we have to get the tone and values right. During the referendum campaign, I talked to hundreds of people about what it would mean to leave the EU, and controlling our borders was a significant concern, although not the greatest. I did not meet anyone who thought that we should stop scientists and engineers from coming to and settling in the UK. There is a desire that Britain should control her borders but also enable those with most to contribute to come here. It should be of huge reassurance to members of the scientific community that the British people greatly value their contribution, no matter from where they came.
Our universities sector is world-leading, with three in the top 10 of the Times Higher Education world university rankings. There is only one other European university in the top 10 and it is Swiss. To maintain our global position, it is vital that, post-Brexit, the whole of the UK universities sector not only maintains its attractiveness to EU students, but enables more students to come from countries such as India by removing barriers. Given that students come for a set period of time and for a specific purpose, they should also be taken out of our immigration figures so that the numbers reflect those seeking to remain here.
Although the vote to leave the EU has caused some to raise fears that it will result in our becoming an inward-looking nation, cut off from the world and its opportunities, most prefer to be optimistic. Brexit is an opportunity to ensure that people with the skills and talents that we need come to Britain so that we have an immigration system that works for everyone.
The UK has been a net beneficiary of EU funding for research, benefiting from the collaboration opportunities offered by EU programmes such as Horizon 2020. However, we need to be clear that our overall contributions massively outweighed any financial returns in this particular sector. Some countries receive most of their Horizon 2020 moneys in structural funds to build up their science base, but Britain largely receives money based on excellence. We ought to be clear that scientists from across the EU gain enormously from collaborating with us. We ought not to think that we are in a weak, dependent position, because we are not.
Funding concerns have been raised by the Science and Technology Committee in its seventh report of this Session. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response in the new year. Like many, I was encouraged by their recent announcement that there would be guaranteed funding for participation in Horizon 2020 projects, even if the project finishes after our departure from the EU.
The Prime Minister’s announcement of an additional £2 billion a year of funding by 2021 for science and innovation through the new industrial strategy is welcome, but I would like clarification on where that money will be spent. Given that we will no longer be a member of the EU, we will not receive any funding from the successor to Horizon 2020. Is it possible or expected that a proportion of that £2 billion will be used to buy into, in part or in full, the successor to Horizon 2020? According to the European Commission’s rules, Britain can participate in Horizon 2020 outside the EU, just like Tunisia, Norway and Israel.
Brexit offers an opportunity to correct any failings in EU policy for science and research. For example, the EU clinical trials directive, which was approved in 2001 and introduced in 2004, is widely seen as being a failure due to increased costs, delays and differing interpretations across the EU. It is due to be replaced by the clinical trial regulation, which is widely expected to be much better and is currently due to be implemented in October 2018. That demonstrates how slow the EU can be in amending and changing regulations, with that process taking nearly 20 years.
In conclusion, I am glad to hear assurances on the future of British science and its funding, but the whole scientific community has a responsibility to secure the future of British science. It is for each and every one of our scientists to go across the world and tell everyone that we are open for business and that science has a bright future in the UK.