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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 1:53 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Soley on this debate. I declare my interest as a professor in various universities and as an applied scientist.

This is yet another profoundly depressing debate that deals with the mainly negative consequences of government policies following the referendum result in June for the UK to leave the EU. These policies affect UK science, research and universities and, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, movingly said, the many thousands of individual British, European and non-European workers in universities. How, one wonders, is the House of Lords responding? The Government Benches are remaining rather cheerful, while the other Benches are not so cheerful. However, university common rooms, which are usually cheerful places, have become extremely gloomy about the consequences.

Essentially, the Brexit policies will, after a few years, lead to significant reductions of UK involvement in research projects funded by EC programmes and, most likely, a significantly reduced involvement of EU scientists working and living in the UK. The Royal Society—and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, in his remarks—is more optimistic about future funds for UK involvement in these programmes. However, as other noble Lords have said, so far as we can gather they are finite, having a cut-off point, and most academics are quite pessimistic about this long-term commitment.

The UK’s international reputation is also important, and colleagues from all over the world have heard with incredulity about the likely withdrawal of significant UK research associated with EU collaboration. This is indeed extraordinary, since the total amount of the UK’s research, although of a high standard, is appreciably less than that of other leading countries—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. There has been no suggestion or explanation that this important gap will be closed, which is of course reflected in and is a consequence of the low industrial productivity in the UK.

Nevertheless, I will make a few constructive remarks. The visa process for researchers to come to the UK should be expedited. Many researchers work in research institutions and companies, and some of them want to become British citizens as a result of these changes. However, the trouble is that this process in the Home Office takes such a long time that some of these people will say, “I can’t wait that long”, and will leave. For example, this delay is leading one small high-tech company, with mostly non-British staff, to set up a branch office in Germany with the possibility of relocating—a possibility the noble Lord, Lord Mair, just described. Will the Minister tell us whether foreign visiting scientists will be able to travel across Europe? If not, they will restrict their visits solely to the Schengen EU countries. Again, one is already seeing that some scientists from Asia, for example, will choose to avoid the UK when planning to come to Europe simply to have one visa for all these countries.

My second point is that we should use UK research funds to enable UK researchers to continue to participate in European-wide networks, as many noble Lords mentioned, including the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. For example, I was involved in setting up such a network involving aerospace, automobile and other companies in the late 1980s, which has been extremely successful. This continues to be supported in various ways by EC grants. With the UK leaving the EU, it will still be possible for the UK to contribute and benefit because these are open organisations, but they may not have the benefit of funding. For example, this particular network, ERCOFTAC, has led to open European collaboration in technologies. The openness of Airbus has enabled European researchers to contribute in a way that, for example, US researchers cannot, being unable to collaborate with Boeing, which is a very secretive organisation.

EC civil servants have made clear that the EC will continue to be a global hub for researchers all over the world, which will include the UK, although clearly we will not be in a leading position. However, it is important for the Government to encourage the UK to participate; I hear from conversations that Whitehall civil servants recognise this. Europe has pioneered international research and its applications, not only through EC collaboration but through the intergovernmental satellite scientific organisations; other noble Lords commented on this, and my noble friend Lord Soley referred to space. I cannot speak more about this—I have spoken for my five minutes.