Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:22 pm on 19th December 2016.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 9:22 pm, 19th December 2016

I am very pleased to be able to speak in this debate. As a health spokesperson, I take a great interest in medical research and I am intensely proud of our universities in Northern Ireland, which are top in their field of medical research. I am also very happy to follow Liz McInnes.

I always, unashamedly, go out to bat for Northern Ireland and Strangford, and I will do so today. As a Brexiteer—one who voted to leave and was very proud that the people of the United Kingdom and my constituency also made that decision—I see an opportunity. The Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s University Belfast is a cross-faculty, interdisciplinary research centre with over 300 clinical and basic researchers from across the world. It achieves the highest quality of research excellence. Research in the institute extends from population studies of cancer etiology, through tumour biology and clinical trials, to outcomes and health services research. The institute is committed to fostering transdisciplinary investigation of areas of cancer control that lie at the interface between fundamental, clinical and population research. The three are currently populated by approximately 250 faculty, graduate and post-doctoral trainees and support staff. Opportunities for graduate and post-doctoral training are offered in partnership with several departments at the university, including: biomedical, anatomy and cell biology, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, pharmacology and toxicology, community health and epidemiology, mathematics and statistics, oncology, pathology and medicine, and Queen’s school of policy studies. All that is done with expertise at Queen’s University. The institute is supported by the Terry Fox Foundation, in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

This high level of research needs a highly qualified and specialised skill set. It is clear that in leaving the EU, we need to ensure that that skill set is protected and that our universities are able to continue their priceless work. I support the recent call by the president of the Royal Society in the Financial Times to ensure that we continue to build on our position as a world leader in science and innovation. We are doing that in Northern Ireland, and we want to continue to do that. We are looking to the Government simply to make sure that that happens. I have every faith that the Brexit team understands the necessity of the arrangements that need to be put in place to ensure that this knowledge and skill share can and will take place. I see the Minister nodding in appreciation, and I am sure that it will be confirmed further in a few moments when he rises to speak.

It is clear that UK research benefits from the immigration of top foreign researchers to the UK. These include several Nobel prize winners, so we must have in place the ability to ensure that they are able to live and work here for the benefit of the UK and our scientific and research industry. As the President of the Royal Society has said:

“Today, 30% of our academic research staff are from abroad and a third of UK start-ups were founded by non-UK nationals. We are second only to the US as a destination for global talent. Their presence ensures that we remain first-rate, and importantly, produces a first-rate environment for training home-grown talent. Losing them would be a disaster for our economy. We need to take immediate steps to reassure those who are here that they remain welcome.”

And they are welcome; we want them to stay. I hope the Minister will say this very clearly in few moments. The role played by foreign scientists and graduates must not be overlooked or underestimated. They are an essential component in the cog of our industry, and I am taking the opportunity to underline that fact and put it on the record in this Chamber today.

In 2015, over half of the UK’s research output was the result of an international collaboration, and these collaborations are increasing. The European Research Council, which is part of Horizon 2020 and funds frontier research purely on the basis of scientific excellence, has established a very strong international reputation. In Queen’s University, we have international partnerships with companies and businesses, with other universities across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and indeed across the world—all coming together to bring the needed scientific excellence right there at Queen’s University in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Although this funding stream does not require international collaboration, 58% of papers with ERC funding have co-authors who are based in other countries.

Collaboration enhances the quality of scientific research, improves the efficiency and effectiveness of that research and is increasingly necessary, as the scale of both budgets and research challenges grow. I am sure that in his response, the Minister will confirm that the collaboration that already takes place will continue post-Brexit and into the future. The primary driver of most collaboration, however, is the scientists themselves. In developing their research and finding answers, scientists are seeking to work with the best people, best institutions and best equipment that complement their research, wherever they may be. It just happens that most of those good people are in Belfast at Queen’s University.

This collaboration must be maintained and enhanced, which brings me back to my foundation point about Brexit: this is an opportunity to put in place mutually beneficial co-operation between countries that we must make the most of. I believe we have an opportunity to do just that. We work better as a team, and Brexit must take the opportunity to put in place the rules that enhance the games and bring the best results. I have every confidence in the Brexit Minister and his team here in this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—we are better together!