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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:43 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench 12:43 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I welcome this debate and join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for securing it. First, I must declare my interest as chairman of the Moredun Research Institute, an animal health research institute in Edinburgh.

We have entered a phase of great uncertainty. Indeed, there appear to be only two certainties at present: first, that Brexit means Brexit—although many of us are uncertain about what that means—and, secondly, that none of us can be sure of the long-term consequences of our withdrawal from the EU. I voted remain but, like many, I accept the decision of the people and now seek to look at how we can move forward. The key issues for universities, as have been mentioned by other noble Lords, involve undergraduate students, postgraduate students, research funding and workforce issues. Time prevents me dealing with undergraduate students—others will deal and, indeed, have dealt with that—and I shall refer briefly to postgraduate students when I talk about workforce issues.

With regard to research funding, although in overall terms the UK is a net contributor of funds to the EU, in science research we have been a net beneficiary. Between 2007 and 2013 our indicative contribution for science research to the EU was some €5.4 billion while in return our scientists procured €8.8 billion to fund their research. In fact, UK scientists won 15.5% of all research funding from the FP7 round of research funding in that period. I confess an interest and, indeed, must declare my gratitude to the EU for research funding when I was a member of staff at the University of Liverpool, in my own modestly sized research group. We received substantial funds, some £1.6 million of EU funding, for animal infectious disease research.

I want to highlight three particular reasons EU funding has been very important to me and my colleagues and continues to be important for many research scientists throughout the UK. First, the growth in EU support has, to some extent, compensated for the reduction in funding from UK sources over the past 20 or 30 years—for example, in my area of animal disease research, funding from Defra has declined substantially in that period.

Secondly, EU funding has often been directed to relatively applied research, filling the gap between basic research funded by our UK research councils and downstream product development and research funded by industry. Plugging that gap has been very important in disease research, where we are frequently seeking tools to aid diagnosis and control of current disease problems.

Thirdly, as many noble Lords have said, EU research has facilitated, and indeed often required, collaboration and mobility between scientists, between member states and between member states and third countries. That is hugely beneficial. Of course, as has been said, notably by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, leaving the EU does not necessarily mean we cannot participate in EU research schemes—countries outside the EU do so—but will the Government make it a priority in our negotiations to achieve arrangements that will enable that? I fear that there is some uncertainty there and it is not clear under what conditions we might be able to participate.

Crucial to our research effort has been the contribution of EU nationals, which brings me to the workforce issues. In our universities today 16% of all academic staff are from other EU countries and in my own area, in the veterinary schools in the United Kingdom, 22% of academic staff are non-UK EU nationals. As other noble Lords have said, the involvement of such international scientists is crucial to a productive and dynamic research climate.

Looking beyond the EU, we should use our admirable commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid to increase research collaboration with, and to provide more postgraduate studentships for, developing countries, enabling their young scientists and research personnel to come and study in our institutions. Such support has a triple benefit: it benefits the recipients and their countries; it benefits our institutions; and it creates a lasting cadre of overseas leaders in emerging countries who will, throughout their life, look to the UK as their alma mater. Will Her Majesty’s Government think creatively in this respect?

Finally, economic growth depends on two main things: population growth and scientific innovation. I fear that Brexit will limit the former but, if there is an economic dividend from Brexit, can we ensure that we invest it in the scientific and technical innovation that will produce enduring economic benefit in post-Brexit Britain?