Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 2:29 pm, 6th September 2018

It is a pleasure to have worked with the Science and Technology Committee on this report, and to speak in this debate. Science and research drives innovation, and if we in Britain want to remain the world-leading, cutting-edge economy that we are today, we must continue to support it. As many have said, science and research helps to find solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, health issues, and changing demographics. We are a world leader. We have less than 1% of the world’s population but, as was said by my excellent Essex neighbour, my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe, we contribute more than 15% of the world’s most cited research publications.

Increasingly, science is not just done by one person acting alone; co-operation and collaboration is important. Those of us who listened to the “Today” programme this morning will have heard about Jocelyn Bell Burnell who, as a postgraduate back in 1967, discovered radio pulsars. Her bosses got the Nobel prize; she did not. Today she has been awarded a $3 million prize, which she has said she will use to set up a fund for women studying physics—thank you! The point made on “Today” was that more diverse science partnerships are more robust and more successful. That goes for supporting women in science, but also for supporting co-operation and collaboration, and especially cross-border co-operation.

I thank the Government for the positive approach that they have taken to science. I am proud that more money is going into science and research under this Government than under any other Government for the past 40 years. The vast majority of public sector money that goes into science—about £6 billion per annum—goes through UK Research and Innovation, but about £1 billion comes from EU funding. In science, not only cash but collaboration matters, and it is important to ensure that scientists based in the UK can continue to collaborate easily with those in other countries. I know the Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in this issue because I was lucky enough to meet her within a few weeks of her taking up her role. I raised the concerns of scientists and their networks, and the Government and the Treasury were quick to issue a guarantee that anyone who already receives Horizon 2020 funds will continue to do so.

I must declare an interest because in my previous role as an MEP I was involved in negotiating the terms of Horizon 2020—I think I was the only British negotiator in the room—and I saw how the eighth framework for science and research was particularly helpful in areas such as the European Research Council, Clean Sky and the Innovative Medicines initiative, as well as for some of the infrastructures, nuclear fusion and the amazing work that goes on in bioinformatics. It is important that we keep those innovative partnerships going forward, and the Government’s White Paper contains strong statements about our need and desire to continue to have an association with all those projects.

A lot of the recommendations that the Science and Technology Committee made in March were picked up in the White Paper in July, but of course there were questions about the detail, and whether we will take part in the next project. The Committee’s report claims that the Government have not given a clear enough statement, and that they should say that they intend to participate, but that if the price is too high or the focus diluted, a change to that approach might be appropriate. That is exactly what the Government are now doing, and the Minister was in Brussels earlier this week, meeting MEPs who are considering potential amendments to the framework programme 9 and Horizon Europe. If some of those amendments are accepted, they could dilute the level of research money that goes into excellence, and might make the programme less good value for money than it currently is. That was a concern of the Committee, but I suggest to the Chair that the Government are intending to support exactly those recommendations that were made in March.

If the framework 9 programme turns out not to be 100% as Britain would like, I would urge the Government to participate anyway. If it is massively different, of course we should look at funding through our own projects, but if it is slightly different, perhaps we should err on the side of caution. We know that if we pull out of the next framework—framework 9—with what would now be quite a short period of notice, that could be disruptive. Therefore, provided that the changes are not too significant, I suggest we err on the side of caution. That is, of course, different to other decisions that we make about our future relationship with Europe, because this decision will affect the next seven years and is not a decision in perpetuity in the way that other elements of our future partnership could be. If the Government are entering the seven-year programme but are not completely convinced about how it may look in its later years, perhaps they should include a break clause at a mid-term point.

Another recommendation in the Committee’s report was about the importance of staying in parts of networks, particularly clinical trials. In some areas—rare cancers, for example—we cannot do the research ourselves, and we need to be part of international clinical trials networks. That recommendation was made in March, and on the day the Government’s White Paper on Brexit was published I sat down with researchers involved in cross-border clinical trials, and they reassured me that the document picked up on all they needed. Provided that the negotiations go through with Brussels, that issue should be covered.

On the visa system, it is incredibly important that individuals in science can continue to work with others. As part of our research, the Committee went across the river to St Thomas’ Hospital and met the British Heart Foundation. World-leading research is happening at that hospital, and more than 60% of the researchers doing heart research, funded by the BHF in the UK are from other countries, including a large number from the EU.