Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 6th September 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West 1:47 pm, 6th September 2018

I thank the Backbench Business Committee and Norman Lamb, the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, of which I am a member, for arranging this debate today.

Members from across the House will agree that scientific endeavour—the pursuit of truths and the ability to support the people with the brightest minds and the energy to solve some of our biggest societal challenges at home and abroad—is something that, as a developed nation, we wish to pursue as much as possible both for our own economic and industrial purposes and for our contribution to the world. The UK, as we have heard already today, plays a significant role in world leadership.

The European Union, as long as we continue to be a member of it, continues to be the leader in the world, counting for a third of global scientific output—34% more than the United States. That is a huge contribution, and as a member of the European Union, we are the second largest recipient of the total funding that goes into research, accounting for €4.6 billion since 2014 and second only to Germany.

We heard on the Select Committee and indeed from universities in Bristol, which I represent, that we also lead a lot of these international collaborations. We are very successful at having the lead academic institutions in the world, which is something that has caused great concern for other European universities as a consequence of Brexit because our ability to lead and be part of Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020, is in question.

This is evidenced by the fact that 62% of UK research is now based on international collaboration. It is absolutely vital that we maintain our abilities to collaborate, to ensure our output. In fact, I want to focus my remarks today on collaboration—not least because Stephen Metcalfe read all the briefings that we all received before this debate.

Collaboration was at the core of the Select Committee reports on both Brexit and immigration. We have heard time and again today that there are two groups when it comes to immigration. In this context, this is not about individuals; it is about academics, their teams and their support staff, and we have heard about the pay threshold that might cause problems in that regard. But this is also about families. This is, I think, the most expensive country in the world for these visa applications. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the cost of £21,000 for a UK visa for a family to come to the UK, whereas the French talent passport is £250.

The Committee heard from researchers in what I think was a Select Committee first—an open dialogue session with members of the audience, which all went perfectly well. One audience member said that their research funding does not include the cost of visa applications for them and their family. In many cases, individuals need to be able to pay for these visa applications, even if they have managed to receive hundreds of millions of euros for world-leading research.

This is not just about people from the European Union, though. The Committee visited CERN, which I was amazed to see is not only trying to discover the basis of the universe, but has solved so many problems—from positron emission tomography for better cancer treatments, to the touch screens on our phones—as a consequence of trying to figure out the solutions. Many British scientists at CERN in Geneva live in France as a consequence of being an EU citizen, so we really need some clarity from the Minister and the Government about the rights of British citizens in Europe post Brexit and whether they will be able to lead their lives in France and travel to institutions such as CERN.

An important point on the immigration system is the exceptional talent visa, to which the Committee referred in our report. The Government have set a cap—thankfully, they have increased the cap for exceptional talent—both for academic research and for technology entrepreneurs, but we are actually not hitting that cap: there are visas that are not being used. The royal societies told us that this is a consequence of the fact that the requirements are quite high; there are not enough Nobel laureates in the world to meet the number of visas that we are offering. The definition of exceptional talent needs to be broadened a little, to include not only people who are professors in their 50s, but young exceptional talent, especially in the technology space. There are so many inspiring entrepreneurs who want—and will, we hope, continue to want—to come to the UK to set up and scale up their technology businesses, which are an important part of our research base.

Industry research and development is vital for our economy, as it is for many of my constituents, as my constituency has advanced manufacturing centres, specifically in aerospace and defence, but also in quantum computing at the University of Bristol and in other areas. We are part of many funds in Europe. With my other hat on, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I look forward to clarification of the Government’s intention to want to be part of each specific fund. For example, we do not yet have clarity on our future involvement in the European defence fund, which has a big industrial research component. In fact, the Government are apparently contributing to the European defence industrial development programme without knowing whether British companies can actually bid for it, which seems a bit nonsensical. We need some clarity on that.

The Erasmus project is an important European fund because, of course, we need students who are learning in the first place to become the professors of the future. The ability to collaborate and for researchers to see that collaboration as a normal part of their profession is vital. The European Commission has recommended a doubling of the budget for Erasmus in its next multiannual financial framework. As we have heard, if we are to be a third country, there is understandably an expectation from Europe that if we continue to get as much out of Erasmus as we do today, we probably need to pay more as we are currently getting more value than we pay for. It would be good to get some clarification regarding our future status in Erasmus and whether the Government intend to contribute to that project to ensure that we continue to be able to be a part of it.

The collaboration point is so crucial to this debate because, whether by perception or reality, the consequence of Brexit for many people around the world is that Britain does not want to collaborate any more—that we are drawing up the drawbridge and focusing on our navel and that people are not welcome here if they are not British. That is a great shame and it is a fundamental risk to the future success of our international collaborations in science and research.

We have to get through all the detail of budget allocations, which projects we want to be part of and fixing the immigration system, which I look forward to debating in the round when the Bill eventually comes to this House. However, I call on the Minister to say what more he is doing, perhaps with the Department for International Trade, the Foreign Office or others, to say to the world that we may be going through what the Government might like to call a period of change—people have different views, although everyone knows that I think that it is nonsense and that Brexit is a complete disaster—but that we are still open. We still wish to collaborate with the brightest and the best. We want people from countries around the world to work in our universities, to educate our students, to be at the forefront of our scientific and industrial endeavours, and we should recognise that the success of Britain and the role that we play in the world relies on that flow of talent, an openness to collaboration and a continuance in doing so.