Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:02 pm, 6th September 2018

I am pleased to see the Minister nodding his head. I have also been pleased to see him in my constituency learning about some of the technology associated with some of that scientific research. We see in Oxford, through European funding and collaboration, the development of new medical technologies and of new clean energies for the future, and important work on dealing with modern threats from cyber-attacks, for example.

This is a timely debate, because it comes after we have had some more clarification following the release of the White Paper just before the summer, and then, more recently, the different papers on preparations in the event of no deal. There are three areas where we have more clarity, particularly through the no deal preparation papers, but two big challenges still exist. First, in very recent weeks—I would have preferred it to be earlier—we have had an indication that the Government will continue to fund European research programme participation until 2020, at least in Horizon 2020. We had a useful discussion earlier about some of the challenges in trying to seek associate status in what is becoming Horizon Europe. We often speak about Britain being committed to preserving the focus on excellence in European science, but that is not unique to British politicians or British scientists. We can sometimes risk coming across as patronising in that regard. We have many allies in Europe who also want to preserve that focus on scientific excellence, even when there have been pressures towards, for example, more regionalised funding or other metrics being used. It is important that we seek to collaborate with them rather than presenting the UK alone as having an interest in that, which would be thoroughly inappropriate.

Secondly, the Government told us in one of the no deal papers that after 29 March, if there was no deal, the UK would leave Euratom but continue funding for its share of the joint European torus—subject, of course, to the Commission extending the contract until then. We also received notice over the summer that the Government have finally, in my view, seen the light—I hope that does not come across as too pejorative—with regard to clinical trials. I have been quite frustrated by some of the discussions in this place on that topic. A lot of the time, they have focused on the shortcomings of the previous clinical trials regime rather than on the incoming regime. It is good to see the Government finally stating that in the event of no deal, the UK would seek to align, where possible and without delay, with the clinical trials regulation regime. The scientists I have talked to in Oxford are very concerned that we could be shut out of opportunities for research collaboration and data sharing if we do not align with the new regime that is coming into play, which is specifically focused on greater data sharing.

We have had some clarity, but we need far, far more. I want to push for that in two areas, one of which we have not yet gone into in detail on: nuclear research. I am concerned about the language that we still see in the no deal paper on nuclear research. That language, in common with what we heard in the Lancaster House speech, seems to be incredibly passive. The no deal paper states:

“When the Joint European Torus operating contract ends, the UK government is willing to discuss options to keep Joint European Torus operational until the end of its useful life.”

“Willing to discuss options” sounds incredibly passive when we are talking about a very important technology and very important scientific research. It almost suggests that we will wait and see what we are offered by the EU27. I hope that that language does not reflect the Government’s intentions, which are hopefully much stronger. I hope that the Minister can clarify that.

Secondly, we still lack clarity around the immigration regime, particularly for early-career and technical staff. The Government have released details about the regime for staff who are already based here, although I know from my postbag—I am sure other Members do as well—that there are continuing concerns among those people. I continue to worry about language focused on the “brightest and the best”. As others have usefully said, if salary is viewed as a proxy for promise and skill, then we will not be where we should be. We should view the science and research career structure as a pyramid where we have at the bottom large numbers of post-docs and short-period researchers who are relatively low paid. They can stay in that situation for quite a long time before they start to proceed up the salary structure, but they are doing incredibly important scientific work. It is important that the Government listen on this subject, because that concern has frequently been mentioned to me on the doorstep by people who are in that situation —early-career researchers who want that mechanism to stay open to others from the rest of Europe in the future. It was also mentioned to me by many impressive researchers whom I met during my Royal Society fellowship in the medical sciences division of Oxford University. This is a live concern.

We need that clarity—and, as we have heard, we need it very, very soon. We are running out of time on many of these issues. After the White Paper was released before the summer, the head of Brexit strategy for Oxford University, Alastair Buchan, called for the aspirations in the White Paper to become firm, detailed commitments in advance of the October EU Council. We have just heard that we have been promised some more detail around the migration arrangements, in particular, in September. We are already into that month. We need to have that information, because this is affecting how future research projects are being designed.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee and all colleagues for what has been a constructive debate so far.