Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:35 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock 1:35 pm, 6th September 2018

I absolutely welcome the steps that the Government have taken to support the science community. I shall come back to that point later, but that investment is a very welcome step. Over the past eight years, the Government have been consistent in their support for science in Budget after Budget—there has always been something in there for the science community—but that does not take away from the fact that the science community is feeling anxious and concerned about the future. It is that uncertainty that we collectively have to try to address.

It is our scientists—scientists from the UK—working in collaboration with others who are coming up with the solutions to feed an ever-growing world population, to tackle and track climate change, to discover new ways to keep us healthy and happier for longer and to make breakthroughs in areas that would perhaps have struck fear in us. We have all heard about the big C. Being diagnosed with cancer 30 years ago was devastating news. Now, because of the work that British scientists are undertaking with others around the world, it does not necessarily have to be a terminal diagnosis. For the UK to continue to play a key role, we need to get a deal that protects the standing of the science community and addresses the key concerns that it has expressed. Those concerns fall mainly into four categories: people and talent; funding, both internally and externally; collaboration and networks and the ability to work together; and regulation and training.

In advance of this debate, not unsurprisingly, I was emailed rather a lot of support material from various places. I will just touch on a bit of it. The Campaign for Science and Engineering, which represents more than 110 scientific organisations and 380,000 people, is still concerned and wants the Government to co-ordinate efforts to unleash UK science and engineering potential. In particular, Professor David Price, Vice-Provost at University College London, highlights the fact that any restrictions on EU researchers coming to the UK post Brexit would damage the quality and impact of research, particularly at UCL and other universities.

The Royal Society of Biology wants the Government swiftly to communicate any decisions that they make, particularly those on immigration, that affect the science, technology, engineering and mathematics community. Again, there is a theme: it wants to remain, and see the benefit of remaining, part of global networks. That capacity to attract highly skilled people to the UK is vital.

The Royal Society of Chemistry highlights the fact that 29% of funding for chemistry in universities comes from the EU and is concerned that that may disappear. Again, it talks about the mobility of scientists between the UK and the European economic area. It says that the UK must continue to work in an uninterrupted full partnership with the European Chemicals Agency from March 2019 onwards.

The Royal Academy of Engineering highlights the fact that engineering business, research and innovation is a global endeavour and that we have to protect it. Universities UK says that £840 million of funding in our universities comes from EU sources and highlights the fact that international students are a particularly important source of income for universities.

Cancer Research UK says that the UK is at the centre of a web of international scientific collaboration and wants the Government to rule out extending the bureaucratic and costly non-EEA immigration system to EU citizens and, of course, points out that salary is not a proxy of skill.

The British Heart Foundation says that 60% of researchers have worked or studied in at least one other country outside the UK. Again, it offers the same themes around funding, collaboration and movement. The Wellcome Trust, which has already been mentioned, says that the Government must address the key issues for the science and innovation community in their Brexit negotiations. If they cannot do that, they must come up with a stand-alone agreement as soon as possible. The Royal Society has expressed concerns that no deal is a bad deal for science and highlights the fact that one in six academic staff come from somewhere else in the EU. The list goes on and one.

Whatever happens with Brexit and the wider negotiations, I, like many others, encourage the Government to address the concerns of the community as soon as possible With all that said, I want to pay tribute to the Government for what they have done: for appointing a chief scientific adviser in the Department for Exiting the European Union; for developing a modern industrial strategy that has put science at its very heart; for committing to raise the amount that we spend on research and development to 2.4% of GDP, with an aspiration to get it up to 3%; and for providing billions of extra pounds in investment in science between now and 2020. I have heard consistently from the Dispatch Box speeches that highlight the Government’s understanding of the special nature of science. Ministers are trying to provide the reassurances and support that the community wants, despite not actually at this stage having any firm proposals. None the less, more still needs to be done.

We must start developing an immigration system that works for science. It must protect and reassure those who are already here, and it must allow for the easy movement of scientists in and out of the country for flexible periods. The system must recognise their value to the UK and to our global scientific endeavour, and that goes beyond sheer monetary worth, by which I mean that we do not want to use salary as an artificial barrier. A scientist’s worth is not just what they are paid. We also need to recognise that scientists, as we have heard, are supported by teams of skilled technicians and other key members of their teams. Let us not harm our global scientific standing by not thinking through how our future immigration system can adapt to those challenges. We must demonstrate that we our open for business.

We must also take another look at whether we need to include student numbers. I am in two minds about that. The overall immigration figure is something that we have pledged to address, but whether a student coming here should be included in that does need to be looked at.

The other key area of concern is funding. As we have said, welcome steps have already been taken, but we have been substantial beneficiaries of the EU-wide funding programmes, particularly Horizon 2020. We need to remain associated both with that and with its successor programme, FP9, assuming—I think that this is what the Minister is getting at—that it is based on excellence. The Minister, I am sure, will be able to reaffirm that, and I know that that is the Government’s aspiration. This will ensure not only that funding continues to flow into the UK, but, equally importantly, that the undoubted benefits of collaboration and cross-border working continue.

Brexit also presents opportunities. As we strike new trade deals and promote global Britain, we can also strike more bilateral research and development programmes with our friends—old and new—around the world.

I am drawing my remarks to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, I could say much more, but I am sure that others will do that for me. For now, I just want to reiterate the importance of science and innovation to the UK and ask that the Government continue to do all they can to protect it, take heed of the recommendations in the various reports that we have produced and, where possible, try to incorporate those as swiftly as possible and demonstrate to the community—the wider science and technology community—that this is a Government whom it can trust and a Government who are battling for it.