Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:59 pm on 19th December 2016.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 8:59 pm, 19th December 2016

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire.

Whatever our view of the United Kingdom’s place in the world, it is probably fair to say it is indisputable that the UK is a science giant. The impact our excellent science and research base has had on the country as a whole has been profound, particularly in our great universities. As I have said previously, my constituency of Cambridge is particularly productive—a hive of science and innovation. The University of Cambridge has fostered almost 100 Nobel prize winners, and the city and surrounding area is home to a thriving network of life sciences and technology companies.

However, as Baron Rees of Ludlow once cautioned:

“Unless we get smarter, we’ll get poorer”.

Eight years later, at a time when our relationship with Europe is at a crucial juncture, that warning is all the more significant. Unfortunately, in the words of Prospect, the trade union representing many people working in the sector:

“It is inescapable that the decision to Brexit has resulted in an instant reputational hit for UK science.”

Let me begin with a plea to the Government to provide concrete, real reassurances to the EU nationals working in science and research around the country. Existing EU research staff need certainty, which is sorely missing at the moment.

I recently visited a lab at the department of physiology, development and neuroscience at the University of Cambridge as part of a pairing scheme run by the Royal Society. I shadowed a neuroscientist-neurologist, Susanna Mierau, who is studying autism, and spent much of the day with her and her colleagues. It was a brilliant and inspiring day, but what was particularly striking was the number of people working in the lab who were EU nationals. It is the same in labs around the city and across the country.

The Royal Society tells us that there are 31,000 non-UK EU citizens working in research and academia in the UK. The Babraham Institute just outside Cambridge says nearly a third of their employees and visiting researchers are non-UK EU nationals. The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, which is on the biomedical park in Cambridge, tells us that EU nationals are a significant and valuable part of their workforce, who are dedicated to beating cancer sooner, with 33% of its PhD students and 39% of its research fellows being non-UK EU nationals. The adjoining Medical Research Council laboratory of molecular biology says that 40% of its research students and 45% of its postdoctoral researchers are from the EU. At the University of Cambridge as a whole, about a quarter of academics and postdocs are EU nationals.

EU nationals are undertaking vital work across the UK to tackle global challenges and improve people’s lives, and they make a huge contribution to UK science and research. Sadly, however, written evidence from the organisations I have mentioned testifies to those people all feeling “very anxious and unwelcome”, “insecure...or even abused”, and

“concerned about their ability to continue working here”.

I find that genuinely horrifying, and I urge the Government to tell EU nationals working in UK science that they are welcome in this country.

The evidence shows that the EU researchers attracted by the UK are at the top of their fields. More than half of European Research Council consolidator grant recipients in the UK in 2014 were non-UK EU citizens. The University of Cambridge argues that UK institutions risk losing this talent and the accompanying European Research Council funding should EU researchers no longer be attracted to the UK, which is the potential consequence of any restrictions on freedom of movement. Losing access to funding is not just about attracting talent; it is also about retaining it.

All of this is not just about the UK’s standing, but about scientific progress itself. Collaboration and the pooling of international talent are essential to scientific innovation. The famous discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick involved a visiting US scientist, and monoclonal antibodies were developed by an Argentinian and a German postdoctoral fellow. Science knows no borders, so talented people and their ideas must be allowed to flow freely. If EU citizens are required to apply for a tier 2 visa to work in UK universities, that will pose a risk to universities’ ability to recruit and retain staff. Maintaining researcher mobility and refusing to create barriers to internationalism must be a priority in Brexit negotiations.

I will conclude by briefly mentioning a couple of other vital areas. I have spoken previously about the importance of ensuring that the UK has continued access to the EU regulatory framework for new medicines under the European Medicines Agency. If we reject the importance of that—as, alarmingly, the Secretary of State for International Trade did in extraordinarily cursory fashion very recently—access to new treatments will slow down, drugs prices will go up and our NHS will foot the bill. Furthermore, our life sciences sector will suffer. In Cambridge there are more than 160 life science companies, but if our country is outside the single market and is no longer able to work with the EMA, and if it moves its headquarters from London, parts of the industry will surely follow. Just recently Sweden was reported to have thrown its hat into the ring to host the EMA headquarters.

Likewise, our technology sector is reliant upon retaining the current regulatory system, in this case ensuring that UK data protection rules are at least in line with the new general data protection regulation following Brexit. The cross-border sharing of international data flows is essential if we want our technology and financial services sectors to remain globally competitive. The Minister for Digital and Culture said in response to an Adjournment debate that I secured recently:

“We want a data protection framework that works best for the UK and meets our needs. Those consultations will be forthcoming.” —[Official Report, 12 December 2016;
Vol. 618, c. 594.]

I wonder whether we can now be told when those consultations will be published. He also said that the Government were considering all options for the most beneficial way of ensuring that the UK’s data protection regime continues to build a culture of data confidence and trust, which safeguards citizens and supports businesses in a global data economy. Perhaps the Minister responding today can outline some of those options.

We need better answers from the Government and soon, or we risk seeing the great advantages and opportunities achieved by UK science and tech squandered, at great cost to us all.