My Lords, I too am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Soley for initiating this important debate and getting us off to such an excellent start—the debate could not be more timely. Those of us who voted to remain in the European Union see the future uncertainty in the area of funding for universities and scientific research as one more reason to fear for the gains that this country has made over the last 20 years in becoming a global leader in research and development. Our status as a leader in research and development, as many noble Lords have said, did not come despite our membership of the EU but, in many aspects, because of it. Many of us in this House are privileged to have received honorary doctorates from universities and indeed many noble Lords are chancellors of our wonderful universities. We all know at first hand of the pressures on those universities even before
Universities across this country have a proud history of welcoming students and researchers from the EU and the rest of the world, which enhances the diversity and intellectual quality of our university courses and our research departments. It also brings much-needed economic stability and predictability to our colleges and centres of excellence. Yet the Government, in bending the crooked knee to a hard Brexit, are insisting on including foreign students among their immigration count. Do the Government not understand that, in order for the work of universities in this country to progress, foreign students and researchers are vital?
One university with which I have a close relationship is the excellent Plymouth University. Its groundbreaking work on dementia research, for instance, has been instrumental in enabling dementia-friendly communities to be set up throughout the south-west. Yet we hear this week from the Alzheimer’s Society that our role as a leading country in dementia research could well be in jeopardy as we exit the European Union. There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and their number is set to rise well above 1 million by 2021. It is vital that active treatments are developed for this disease and that a cure is one day possible.
“the best place in the world to undertake research into dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases”.
I have been personally associated with the former Prime Minister’s rural dementia groups and I know first-hand about the important work that they have undertaken. But Brexit has brought many uncertainties in this area. I ask the Minister: have the Government yet looked at the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on funding for UK dementia research? In the historically underfunded field of dementia research, EU investment is particularly critical. EU funding has become a vital source of support for that research and the loss of access to EU funding programmes could have a significant impact on major and pilot projects as well as grants for equipment for dementia researchers. What will the Government do in the long term—as noble Lords have asked—about the projects launched and funded by the EU Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programmes, many of which address the issue of dementia, once we have left the European Union?
Our universities are centres of learning but also economic hubs for their towns, cities and regions. They have always been inclusive and collaborative in their ethos, with an outward-looking view of the world and its opportunities. Will the Government ensure that Brexit will not mean the end to all that?