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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative 12:31 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, the nearest I have to declare as an interest is that my wife is a professor of neuroscience at Newcastle University and in receipt of EU funding, but the views expressed today are my own. I think that I am the first member of the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee to speak in the debate so far. I commend the report into these matters produced under the able chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Selborne. It contains a huge amount of interesting detail.

In his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said that we must not slip back in terms of being a scientific superstar. Indeed, we must go further than that and leap forward. This has to be an opportunity as well as a risk. He said that the UK is a leading scientific nation and he is quite right. In per capita terms we have twice as many universities in the world top 200 as the US and Germany. We were awarded five Nobel prizes this year, more than anyone else. Admittedly all of the winners are living in America, but that rather makes the point that science is a global activity and not a regional one. If you go into a science lab today, you are likely to find a group of people as diverse as in the changing room of a Premier League team, and probably more so.

I want to concentrate my remarks on three issues: the questions of talent, of finance and of regulation. It is vital that universities should be able to attract talent from around the world. In this respect it is key that the Government should recognise and say explicitly that there is a very big difference between public opinion about skilled migration and unskilled migration. At the moment I do not think that they have made that distinction clear enough. The polling evidence is very clear. The public actually approve of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and doctors and so on coming into the country just as strongly as they disapprove of less skilled migration. At this quite early stage there is nothing to stop the Government from publishing plans about what kind of expedited talent visas they would make available to people all around the world to come here. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, made this point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, and I agree with them.

South Africa, for example, has a critical skills programme which automatically fast-tracks people who come from the 500 top institutions in the world. I do not know whether that is the right way of doing it, but it is at least the kind of thing we need to be talking about, because this is a golden opportunity to relax high-skilled migration barriers and to discriminate on the basis of talent rather than nationality, which is surely what we should be doing.

On finance, Horizon 2020 has been mentioned on a number of occasions. I would correct something that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said: we do not have to be in the EEA to be a member of Horizon 2020. Fifteen countries are members of Horizon 2020 that are not in the European Union. Two of them, Tunisia and Israel, are not even in Europe. There are others if you count the Caucasus; I do not know whether that counts as the continent of Europe. The point is, although they are so-called associate members, the press release that announces their joining this programme says that they will be on exactly the same terms as members of the European Union. Indeed, the country with the most project co-ordinators per capita leading projects in Horizon 2020 is not an EU country—it is Iceland. There should be no bar to us participating fully in Horizon 2020, as long as we contribute. Universities need to do a better job reassuring their employees about this.

On regulation, as the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, said, we are underfunding science and research in this country, but that is largely because private, rather than public, funding is lower in this country. In that respect, the degree to which European regulation, such as the clinical trials directive, which the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, mentioned, has held back sectors such as biotechnology in particular is really quite striking. The regius professor of medicine at Oxford, Sir John Bell, has gone on record making this very clear. There has been application of the precautionary principle in the Commission and the Parliament of the European Union that goes much further than elsewhere in the world, which has meant that we have, in effect, held innovation to a higher standard than existing technologies. Indeed, we have emphasised the risks of innovation more than the benefits.

There are huge technological opportunities for universities and research in the world, in particular online with international campuses and things like that. We must grasp opportunities to explore these possibilities in a post-Brexit world.