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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:58 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 1:58 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Cambridge University, an institution that is global in its staffing, its students and its mission. I am one of the 93% of scientists who opined in a poll that the net effects of Brexit would be negative for science and technology. Not only big projects such as aerospace benefit from pan-European collaboration. Even small sciences and high-tech start-ups require a critical mass of internationally mobile people. The EU has been a critical catalyst across the whole range of Wissenschaft.

In my Cambridge college, there is an especially strong cohort of EU students, many from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and other nations with a strong academic tradition. We are surely right to welcome them—in their own interests and those of Europe. They see themselves as Europeans, with a shared culture. They hope our continent can be a progressive political force in a turbulent and multipolar world, where the challenges cannot be tackled at national level. Indeed, the science and university-based arguments against Brexit, compelling though they are, are trumped for many of us by these broader European aspirations.

It is sometimes argued that it is not the EU but the rest of the world with which we should engage, as though there is a conflict between these goals, but the opposite is the case. We will be less attractive to mobile talent and collaborators from the US or India if we cannot offer open links to European networks. Indeed, the worry is that even if the funding streams were sustained for participation in the ERC, Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus exchanges, Brexit would still weaken us. Skilled people from overseas already feel less welcome, their families less secure. The Chancellor has assured international bankers of special treatment but there has been no comfort for any other sector.

We can learn lessons from the past. This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was shared between three Brits for work carried out mainly in the UK around 1980. All three defected to the US during the Thatcher years, when university budgets here were heavily squeezed. Fortunately, our situation has brightened since then, substantially due to the strengthening of mainland Europe’s science and the EU. Indeed, we have had genuine “brain gains”. Among them are the current Royal Society president and the discoverers of the wonder material graphene, who came here from Russia, via a stay in Holland. Would they choose Britain today? Post-Brexit, such gains will be at risk. The prospects of new collaborations may be jeopardised. Outstanding foreigners will not want to work here as much. Many who are already here will feel that they will be better off abroad. Ambitious young people considering science as a career will wonder whether they can do their best work in this country.

That is why, incidentally, the contentious Higher Education and Research Bill is proving so unfortunately timed. Universities and researchers need to focus on damage limitation. What they do not need is a major and distracting reorganisation. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, the Bill should surely be shelved.

However, these issues are not just a matter for academia. The whole country suffers if our hard-won expertise in science and our universities spiral into decline. The maxim, “If we don’t get smarter, we’ll get poorer”, will apply even more powerfully if we have to contend with the fallout from Brexit.