Brexit: Impact on Universities and Scientific Research - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 11:37 am, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, in moving this Motion let me say that I fully respect the decision of the court today and the Government’s position. I know that it is not a matter for debate today but some of the things that I will say will indicate that Parliament can have a helpful role in the difficult negotiations and discussions to follow. Whether the Government decide to appeal is a matter for them. I say simply that Parliament has a duty to hold the Government to account, but also to offer its help, advice and guidance on some of the very complex issues that will appear during these discussions. Let me say straightaway that the issues affecting universities, and scientific research and development, are a very good example of that.

Not only has there been enormous interest in this Motion from Members of this House, many of whom will speak today with far more knowledge and experience than I have, particularly of the university world, it is also true that the number of organisations outside—throughout the United Kingdom—that have contacted me about this debate is quite remarkable. I have had letters, emails and contact from all over the country expressing concern. I already indicated in my first Question today that my concern is that the United Kingdom and the European Union need a good and productive relationship in the future. It is of no benefit to the EU or to the UK if we simply see this as a game of winners and losers. There has to be a new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and scientific research and development will be a critical part of that.

I do not need to tell this House, particularly with the number of scientists in it, that science and technology and universities are critical to the development and success of any modern economy. Indeed, higher education in Britain and our scientific research are big success stories for the United Kingdom and must continue. There is now genuine concern in scientific research and universities about what will happen during the process of Brexit and if we withdraw, which seems almost certain. Somehow or other, we must have a structure that makes sure that this country does not slip back in its significant achievements in research and higher education.

Two core issues have troubled people who have contacted me. They boil down to, first, acute concern about the movement of students and staff inside in scientific research. Scientific research is now international, and within the European Union it is transnational. We have to recognise that. It is not focused in just one country. It is very much interdependent. Some of that work, which I hope to indicate in a moment, is profoundly important to everyone, everywhere. It is not just a matter for scientists and researchers in universities. It will affect everybody’s life in every way.

The second issue causing acute concern is funding. It is not just whether funding will continue at the current level or, as we hope, increase; it is also about predictability during the negotiation process. It is no help to anyone if people who are making bids for research money to European institutions, most notably the Horizon 2020 programme and the European Research Council, cannot be sure what will happen to their application in the coming months and years.

To put those concerns in context, I shall quote the Russell group of universities, which sums up the concern quite clearly. I think the Government have to focus on what it says. It wants the Government to ensure that:

“UK universities can continue to recruit and retain talented staff and students from across the EU and more widely without bureaucratic visa burdens”.

That is important, and I shall come back to it later. Its second point is about:

“Ensuring the UK can continue to have full access to and influence over Horizon 2020 and further EU research and innovation programmes and infrastructures”.

I would include the European Research Council in that. Its third point is about:

“Ensuring the UK can continue to participate in the Erasmus+ programme”.

All three of those issues have been reflected by many other organisations and individuals who have contacted me.

It may help if I give some examples of the sort of research that matters to everyone in this country. I turn first to astrophysics, space science and geophysics. They are by nature international operations involving countries all around the globe, but they are also profoundly important within the European Union, and there is funding within the European Union. Something that perhaps puts meat on the bones of this sort of research and shows people inside and outside this House how important it is the FLARECAST programme. As its name implies, it tries to forecast solar flares. Solar flares are increasingly important because as we rely more and more on high technology, a serious outbreak of solar flares can massively disrupt electronic communications and the power distribution network. That affects everyone in this country, in the European Union and around the world. That work is currently funded massively by the Horizon 2020 programme. That is one of my first examples of how important it is that we manage to keep the Horizon 2020 programme going and that we are fully part of it.

Another example of that the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in East Anglia, which has an international reputation and is virtually entirely funded by the European Union. This is where Parliament can be very helpful to the Government, as we need to keep bringing issues of this type up, not in order to score points but simply to say we cannot allow a situation to develop where such organisations lose their funding and it is not replaced in some way. I will come back to this, but ideally we would have a situation where the funding continues more or less as it is. If we do not achieve that in the negotiations, then the British Government will have to find the money for that sort of work.

Immunology is profoundly important to the health and disease problems that we face—again throughout the world, as obviously they are not unique to the United Kingdom. Some €8.8 billion has been paid in the six years between 2007 and 2013 by the European Union. That is a very large sum of money, and either we find a way of that continuing or we have to replace it in some way. The amount of money we get in research grants for immunology from the European Union is second only to that achieved by Germany. Both Britain and Germany are leaders in that work and, again, the issue is of course international and not just transnational—it is certainly not just about the UK.

The European Investment Bank only a few months ago gave a loan of £280 million to University College London, and a few months prior to that gave £200 million to Edinburgh University. The funds were designed to enable those two universities to develop infrastructure projects, which have an immensely important spin-off into the development, creation and progress of small creative businesses. I cannot stress that enough, as we tend to understate what we do in manufacturing in this county. Some of our manufacturing is very advanced and very lightweight, and our exports depend on it massively. This is not a plug for Heathrow Airport, but every plane that goes out is stuffed full of exports of very high-tech equipment. It is worth remembering at this time that there is hardly a satellite whizzing round the world that does not have British technology in it. That is profoundly important. I would like to know how the Government think those investment programmes will continue. Ideally, we will solve this in the negotiating process, but if not we need to find a way of funding them.

Oxford University gets 12% of its total research budget from the European Union. There are six pan-European infrastructure projects located in the United Kingdom, and two of them—one at Harwell run by Oxford University on laser energy and the other on biology at Oxford University—are profoundly important. Can the Minister look at how we will continue to develop them if we are no longer part of the European Union? They are part of this pan-European project. As I say, there are six of them in this country, and they would need to continue as well if we want to maintain our scientific lead.

It would be quite useful again to have the Minister’s views on one way of addressing this, which would be to recognise that coming out of the European Union does not necessarily mean that we have to leave the European Economic Area. The European Economic Area may, or could, to some extent mitigate the funding crisis that will hit some of these organisations if we are not careful. It is not a complete answer by any means but it would mean, as I understand it, that we could continue to have access to funds from both Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council. I am sure the Minister is aware that it is possible to have associate relationships with these organisations, in the way that Israel and Switzerland do. There are other possibilities here, but there is no doubt in my mind that the first priority should be that the funding continues more or less as it is, not least because of the predictability of it. That predictability is profoundly important.

The Prime Minister says that we are a full member of the European Union until such time as we leave, and therefore such things should not change. I understand that, and legally it is correct, but in reality, people in other European Union countries are looking at the relationship they have with Britain in scientific research and universities and asking how Brexit will affect it.

I am told—again, I should like to know whether the Minister is aware of this and can tell us any more about it—is that people are already reluctant to place Britain as a lead programme developer when applying for funds, because they cannot be sure that they will not lose out if Brexit goes badly wrong and we end up coming out of the European Union without a proper agreement on the continuation of science and technology research.

Many people in this Chamber have far more knowledge of universities than I do, and I do not doubt that they will speak about them both individually and in terms of funding of students and student exchanges. I just flag up that I regard that as particularly important, and look forward to hearing from some of my more knowledgeable and expert friends on it.

We must be aware that this is not just a funding issue. The other group whose evidence impressed me was the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. It wants predictability on regulation. Obviously, drug production requires regulation across the European Union; again, it is transnational. It is no good our having a different set of regulations from Germany, France, Italy or elsewhere, so somehow we have to agree a system of regulating standards so we do not get bogged down in additional bureaucratic discussion on each individual drug that is produced. My memory is that 25% of the world’s leading prescription drugs were discovered and developed in the United Kingdom. That is immensely important. It would not be good to get bogged down in regulatory discussion.

The House of Lords Library points out that we have received £5.6 billion per annum from the European Union for recent scientific research and development, and that 2.5% of UK university income came from the EU in 2014-15.

I finish on this point because I want to leave as much time for others as possible. I say to the Minister that Parliament can be helpful on this. We need to make sure that universities, higher education and research and development are carried forward successfully, but we rely an awful lot on what happens in the negotiations. To go right back to what I said at the beginning, that means that we need a good relationship with the European Union where both sides recognise that predictability in funding and the ability of staff and students to move around internationally and transnationally are vital. I beg to move.