Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 2:09 pm, 6th September 2018

It is a pleasure to follow the enthusiasm of Anneliese Dodds. I thank the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb, for securing this important debate.

Many Members will agree that we need an immigration system that works for the science and innovation community. Back in March 2018, the Prime Minister, speaking on our future economic partnership with the European Union, called for

“a far-reaching science and innovation pact with the EU, facilitating the exchange of ideas and researchers.”

Collaborative research environments are currently being nurtured in our colleges and universities throughout the United Kingdom, and we must ensure that those arrangements do not simply survive but continue to thrive post Brexit. If we peruse the alumni of such colleges and universities, it is clear that students attend from many parts of the world, with many going on to complete PhDs here in the United Kingdom.

Similarly, several institutions and their professional journals cater for a global membership, again clearly illustrating the exchange of ideas and practices. Many members travel and participate in conferences around the world. One example is the Institution of Fire Engineers, which offers chartered engineer status to people throughout the world. We would not wish to lose such valuable contributions due to visa restrictions. Further evidence is to be found in medical and scientific textbooks. For example, one textbook on the complicated subject of polymyalgia rheumatica has 32 contributors from no fewer than eight countries. It is imperative that such contributors’ expertise and skills transcend borders and are not held back by them, to benefit practitioners and patients alike, whether that be by visiting to collaborate on further publications, lecture on good practice or carry out and demonstrate life-saving procedures.

Some countries operate consortia, with scientists sharing expensive equipment, such as in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. That allows access to data through computers within laboratories or universities in their own countries without the necessity of travelling. However, for practical experience, and where shortages exist in specific skillsets, it is often necessary to ensure free movement of scientists and students of science. Such talent is vital to fulfil the vision set out in the Government’s industrial strategy to raise the total research and development investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. The immigration system needs to be supportive of that strategy, and it must be affordable and have a degree of flexibility.

While addressing EEA nationals, it may be an opportune time to reflect on the current immigration system for non-EEA nationals and any possible improvements to it. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the number of applicants per vacancy has fallen since last summer across all levels of skilled jobs, and the number of people moving to the UK from other EU countries has fallen to its lowest level since 2013. In placing greater emphasis on the need, when taking back control of our borders, to honour the stated aim to maintain a close friendship with our European neighbours, we need to find a pragmatic way to encourage the continued exchange of skills and developments, particularly but not exclusively in the scientific and innovative arena.

I fully acknowledge that people cannot be looked at in isolation, and due consideration will need to be given by the Government to funding for Horizon 2020 and various framework programmes and their successors, together with appropriate regulation to facilitate fruitful contributions by future generations of scientists and innovators. I trust that the Minister will be able to confirm that all those issues are being urgently addressed, in order to secure the future of science and innovation here in the United Kingdom, which is, and I am sure will remain, world leading.