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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:13 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 1:13 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, it is the task of POST—the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—to keep parliamentarians, their researchers, their committees and parliamentary staff informed about all matters relating to science. On 10 November it is going to bring all these people together with the research councils to consider how Brexit will affect key policy areas relating to science. The session relating to funding of science research had 75 applicants to speak.

I declare an interest as a member of the board of POST. As a result, I was able to gain access to the issues that these people wished to explore. Overwhelmingly, they made the point that the great advantage of ERC funding is its encouragement of international collaboration. It is well known, they said, that this type of research is of higher quality than national research. Another issue is that EU funding, over the decades, has allowed our scientists to participate in EU and transnational knowledge communities and groups, thus creating centres of excellence—centres that take decades to build up.

The applicants were also concerned about the free flow of scientists. The current PhD funding allocation system does not discriminate between UK and non-UK EU applicants. This helps to recruit the best of the EU. It is the mobility of these highly skilled young scientists that is the key to the UK’s competitiveness and standing in global projects. They were also concerned that our strong voice in European debates around science policy would be lost, making us followers rather than leaders—an impression that will be very difficult to heal.

Those were some of the points raised in anticipation of the POST seminar, which strongly echo the views of other noble Lords here today speaking in this excellent debate moved by my noble friend. But POST will have another session at its seminar, looking at those decisions on Brexit that will require scientific expertise. That expertise is currently found at those European centres of excellence that the applicants spoke of, and we may now have to provide it from our own science budget. Take agriculture, for instance, and the use of herbicides. It is our scientists, and not the European scientists, who may well have to interpret the precautionary principle in relation to the way GE technologies and pesticides are authorised here in the UK. It is the same with fisheries. Defra will require a lot of scientific expertise to set up its own technical fisheries regulations and standards. We should also remember that coastal issues are devolved, so Scotland and Wales could also call on more of our science budget.

Going it alone on the environment requires a lot more work from our biodiversity and natural environment research base that has previously been funded through EU programmes. There are some 500 environmental directives, each of which will require a science review. Another big call on our science budget will be maintaining the Schengen information system for law enforcement and policing, and other big data systems that we depend on for trade and security.

All these issues are tackled much more effectively, and at lower cost, at a European centre of excellence—more effectively and cheaply than we could do it alone. If Brexit is going to call more heavily on our own science budget, surely this must be the wrong time to introduce a Higher Education and Research Bill designed to change the very structures that fund our science. If this is a listening Government, surely after hearing the well-reasoned and authoritative arguments in today’s debate, one thing they could do immediately is to put that Bill on hold.