Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:19 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness 2:19 pm, 6th September 2018

I will be comparatively brief. I speak as a former member of the Science and Technology Committee—first under Nicola Blackwood, the former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, and then under my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe. I even had the temerity to run for the chairmanship of the Committee, but the less said about that the better.

What struck me time and again during my years on the Select Committee was that science is hugely collaborative and international. Horizon 2020, which is now Horizon Europe, is a hugely important part of that, but we should not have this debate imagining that it is by any means the only part. One of the most fascinating visits the Select Committee went on was to DeepMind, a private business that was started in Britain and then bought by an American company in the form of Google. We should not pretend that this conversation is happening solely in the context of funding from the European Union, or solely in the context of us as a net beneficiary of scientific funding when we are actually a net contributor to the EU.

I urge the Government and colleagues to look at this in the round. When we went to see DeepMind and other companies, it was very clear that immigration is a hugely important factor, but it is by no means the only factor. The question of what the Government can do to encourage more people to work in science and in business that relies on science goes far beyond the conversations we are having about Brexit. I do not want to harp on solely about DeepMind, but what did we hear at such private companies? What we heard was as much about regulation, insurance when it comes to driverless cars and a whole host of things on which the Government will have greater freedom to act when we leave the European Union.

There are opportunities that I urge the Government to seize in relation to this issue, but there are of course challenges as well. I welcome the fact that the Government have made some very encouraging noises on scientific funding—not just post the referendum, but in every previous Budget while I have been lucky enough to be a Member of this House. This Government have consistently backed science and innovation, and I hope we will continue to do so.

The industrial strategy demonstrates a much greater commitment to such an agenda than we have seen for many years. I welcome that, but I would caution the Government not to be too prescriptive. This is about allowing businesses and universities to empower themselves, rather than about picking winners. I know that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has never sought to pick winners, but I suggest that that is something we should always guard against. In my constituency, we need greater innovation in agri-tech, which is also driven by business, and our own regional industrial strategy will deliver a huge amount of that.

What are the continuing barriers to working in science and to driving forward scientific innovation? It is as much the constant reliance on soft money that stops people coming to and getting work in our universities as anything else. Those are the systemic issues in science and innovation that we can tackle regardless of our decision to leave the European Union. Immigration is of course one of the single most important issues in relation to recruiting to universities and within the scientific community.

I welcome both of the two reports that the Chair of the Select Committee, Norman Lamb, talked about. As a deregulating Conservative, I wonder whether we could simplify even some of the suggestions in those reports. My own constituency voted more than any other to leave the European Union and free movement was a huge part of that, but I think many people might ask whether we could not look at something as simple as free movement for people with a PhD or something as straightforward as that. I am not by any means the first person to suggest it. That would allow us to send a very clear signal in contrast to some of the very unfortunate and inaccurate characterisations of the Brexit vote. There are legitimate worries in the scientific community around the world about whether Britain is the open and eager-to-collaborate landscape that it has been for many decades. I wonder whether we can do simpler things and be more attractive to the international scientific community even than the suggestions made in the Select Committee reports.

The most important thing in all that is to emphasise that this should not be a discussion about whether we are open to collaboration with the European Union or open for business. This must be a discussion about whether we are open to global collaboration that leads to future growth in our science and innovation sector. That is because science and innovation does not recognise the boundaries of the European Union or those of Britain; it is genuinely a global industry. We must do all we can to get across those borders and to meet those challenges.

We must have in mind what individual technology companies can be encouraged to do that will also be in our national interest. It worries me that Google has made a decision to avoid any contact with our military establishments, because some of the greatest innovations have come out of our military establishments and those of America. It is important that we recognise no barriers internationally, and that we recognise all the opportunities that come from working across sectors that have not previously thought of themselves as technology sectors. Thinking of my own county of Lincolnshire, the Air Force will need more computer programmers than ever before. If companies such as Google are disinclined to work with the Air Force, that will be a sorry state of affairs, although I am slightly simplifying the approach Google has taken.

These are the barrier-less worlds in which we must now live, and it is important to consider not just how the Minister sees this, but how he interacts with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and of course in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and elsewhere. I hope we can use the opportunity of leaving the European Union to see what we can do in a freer and different regulatory world.