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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:54 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat 12:54 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, like my predecessors I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. I should quickly declare my interest in GKN, which participates in Horizon 2020 research. We have already heard many wise voices on this subject, with more to follow. To date, much of the talk has been on naming and delineating the problems, and perhaps suggesting a few mechanisms for solutions. I thought I would try something slightly different by focusing my efforts on suggesting a simple test that could act as red lines for the Minister during the negotiations, and which we could use to judge his success and the effect Brexit might have on research and science in this country. Unfortunately, it will look a bit like one of the Santa lists mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and I apologise for that.

First, we should probably acknowledge where we are. From everything we have heard today, most of us agree that research and science in this country is in a good place. I had the pleasure this year of attending the Royal Society’s annual science exhibition. There was room after elegant room of exhilarating science and most of those projects had similar characteristics. They had diverse institutional collaboration, important elements of European Union funding and myriad accents explaining the research. It was not just the best science but the cream of scientists from Europe and the rest of the world. This exhibition has been a feature of London life since 1778, so it would be foolish of me or anybody else to suggest that UK science will somehow be swept away on our leaving the European Union. However, it was hard not to feel that over the past few years we really have been enjoying something of a golden age. It would be very sad if this golden age were tarnished by Brexit; more than that, it would be deeply unfortunate.

We have heard many different numbers but we should highlight the importance of the European Union. Almost one-fifth of all the EU funding that comes to the UK is spent in research and development, so it really is an important part of our relationship with the rest of the European Union. During Questions earlier, I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, highlighting research and development as one of his five or six possible areas for special attention. That starts to look like carve-out territory. The noble Lord, Lord Trees, highlighted the number of academics involved in his department and the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, pointed out the real importance of the Erasmus programme to our students. The European Union has a big influence on everything we do.

Following the exit vote, how did the Government react and what should we think of that reaction? On mobility, which noble Lords have all brought up, assurance was given quite quickly by the Prime Minister and others about the EU nationals who are here now. But it was a very narrow assurance and many here have pointed out that a unilateral recognition of the rights of European workers in this country would do much more to assuage their and their families’ anxiety. In August, the Treasury said that it would underwrite the current UK Horizon 2020 funding round, but what happens beyond that? It is easy to see why a feeling of uncertainty engulfs the sector: when it looks over the precipice of Brexit, it sees no clarity at all.

Looking forward, the Science Minister from the other place sought to reassure the Science and Technology Committee. He said that,

“regardless of the relationship we end up having with”,

the European Union’s,

“funding streams … we will continue to be an attractive country to partner with in science”.

It cannot be right to disregard that relationship. All expert opinion agrees that the level of funding the UK receives from Europe must at least be maintained. We need to know how that will happen. Perhaps the Minister can assure us that he shares that view.

So, to the test. We need a way of helping the Minister and the negotiating team to make the right decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, proposed a quite sophisticated structure and framework. I think I am coming up with something a bit simpler that offers yes/no answers. When we look at the situation as we think it will be post-Brexit—I am not asking for a running commentary, but that the Government use these tests—does the new situation preserve funding levels? Does it protect collaboration? Does it ensure free movement of researchers and students? Does it maintain access to EU-funded research facilities? Does it secure Erasmus? There are undoubted opportunities, which the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and other noble Lords set out, but before we are in a position to take them we need to know that the Government are doing no harm.

These are the red lines. If the answer to all these questions is yes, well done. We will be in exactly the same position we are in now, minus a great deal of instability and anxiety down the road to get there; but if there are noes, then Brexit is actively harming our science and research and tarnishing the current situation. Can the Minister confirm that these are the right tests and if they are not, will he suggest what they should be?