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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Mair Lord Mair Crossbench 1:35 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on initiating this important debate. I begin by declaring an interest as a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. I am also a professor of civil engineering at the University of Cambridge where I lead a large research group, which includes many non-UK EU nationals. I will make two points: the first relates to EU funding for research and innovation and the second—closely related to funding—is about collaboration and retention of international talent. In both cases there is considerable uncertainty following the referendum.

Dealing first with EU funding, the UK receives a significantly greater amount of research funding than it contributes, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. If the UK loses access to EU funding for scientific research, will the Government pledge at the very least to make up for this funding gap? This question was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury.

My second point is about the crucial role of collaboration and the all-important retention of international talent. UK science and technology is world-leading. The Royal Society reports that 60% of the UK’s internationally co-authored research papers are with EU partners. Losing this ability to collaborate freely would be very damaging. In my own department of engineering at Cambridge, in addition to our academic staff—many of whom are EU nationals—we have several hundred post-doctoral researchers. This community of post-doctoral researchers is the engine room for the research that underpins the university’s world-leading reputation. One-third are EU nationals—the picture is similar across the whole of Cambridge University, and for other leading UK science and technology universities.

Free movement is vital in attracting top academics and students for the benefit of UK science and technology, and for the benefit of the UK economy. The Government need to act now to ensure that academic staff, researchers and students from EU countries have certainty about the future. Otherwise, they will be deterred from working in British universities and will simply go elsewhere. Well-funded science and engineering research is vital for the economic growth of the country. Engineering contributes at least 20% of gross value added for the UK economy, and accounts for 50% of the UK’s exports. Innovation is critical to the economy; it underpins the research that has real impact on business and enterprise, as the noble Lord, Lord Broers, said.

Start-up companies play a key role in driving innovation. EU nationals are often highly influential scientists and engineers in many start-ups, generally having very close links with university research groups. Cambridge alone has more than 1,000 technology companies in or near the city, many of them spin-out companies from the university’s research groups and many of them receiving EU funding. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, 25% of UK start-ups were founded by EU nationals, and 45% of UK start-up employees are EU nationals. A clear message is urgently needed from the Government if these vital start-ups are to remain and thrive in the UK. It is of course also crucial that these start-ups do not relocate. Other countries in the EU have been quick to seize the initiative in this period of uncertainty, encouraging UK-based start-ups to go elsewhere. The Royal Academy of Engineering draws attention to Berlin being especially proactive. The Berlin Senator for Economics, Technology and Research has been writing directly to such companies to persuade them to relocate to Berlin. Proactive government action is needed quickly to prevent this.

There is a vital need to remove the uncertainty that is already so damaging to universities and their researchers. The Prime Minister has stated that the Government are committed to ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as the UK withdraws from the EU. If this to be achieved, the major funding gap for scientific research caused by leaving the EU must be filled, one way or another, by the Government. Most importantly, the UK must remain a magnet for international talent. Without outstanding EU researchers, our science and engineering research base will suffer badly. This will be damaging for universities and innovation, and for the UK’s economy. We ignore these risks at our peril.