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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:34 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Mendelsohn Lord Mendelsohn Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (International Trade) 2:34 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Soley for introducing this debate. It has been substantial, with a high degree of consensus across the House. We have heard many distinguished contributions from leaders in the fields of academia and research and in the administration of universities.

I have two interests to declare. The first is that I have a daughter at Leeds University and three other children yet to apply to universities because of their age. I have to confess that my eldest son, who is about to go through this process, recently needed and still needs some persuading to choose a UK-based institution, given the nature of where we are. That is not a situation that I thought I would be in, but to me that is quite alarming in showing how he sees the future of Britain, its connection with other people and as an open home.

The second—this speaks more to where I am—is that I am an investor in our science and research base. I believe very strongly in the strength that we have in this country, and I have put money to work in the great genius of people developing great businesses out of great scientific insights. I recently enjoyed visiting some of these facilities, particularly Harwell in Oxford. Harwell is a leading science and innovation campus in Europe. Some 5,000 people work there in more than 200 organisations on what is a 710-acre site. Organisations currently based there include: the Science and Technology Facilities Council, with £1 billion-worth of infrastructure; the Diamond Light Source’s synchrotron; the ISIS neutron and muon investigations facility; the Central Laser Facility; computer data storage; RAL Space; and the European Space Agency.

Located fairly close by is the Oxford Business Park—one of our largest business parks—and many businesses have been spun out of that tremendous facility. I remember going to see one business there with a group of others who were looking at investing in that business. We went into a very small but classic business park building. An American investor who was with us said that, in the United States of America, there would have been a three-hour journey into the middle of the desert for such a huge facility, with lights, for the very same thing. We much undervalue that which we have. In my area of interest, I share not just the concern expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Mair and Lord Paul, about how we energise our start-ups, but about how we effectively commercialise all the ideas and businesses that we have and make them world-leading. That has become a greater concern.

Since our Brexit decision, these issues have been thrown into sharper focus, especially the people dimension. As you walk across Harwell, you are met by people from many nations and nationalities—many different people who are researchers, technicians, engineers and people starting businesses. Some of those people, who hitherto saw their futures there in working on healthcare, medical devices, space, detector systems, security facilities and satellite enterprises, do not necessarily see themselves staying in our country any more. It is very important that we get the people dimension absolutely right.

As was pointed out early on in the debate, by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, my noble friend Lady Blackstone and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, networks and internationalism are absolutely crucial to modern academic and scientific research. Since the 1980s, research has become rapidly international. In the UK, 15% of papers were co-authored in 1981; that figure is now over 50%. Of the UK’s international collaborations, 80% include an EU national. The European Union’s commitment to the development of science and technology, to become the greatest hub of excellence in the world, is an intentional policy for dealing with the consequences of having to change: to meet the needs and requirements of agriculture; to have a different ability in manufacturing; to spur innovation; and to trigger, in modern industrial economies, the right sort of economy. We have been in the driving seat of this process and that has been of great benefit to us, and therefore we have to face up to the tremendous challenges that Brexit brings.

I also agree with the point about government funding of science and technology, which has been stagnating. In many ways, we have piggybacked on the EU, and we have moved to around 0.5% of GDP, as has been raised. I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, who first highlighted this issue, and those of my noble friend Lord Hunt, who agreed with him. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, that the private sector does not play its part in this, but I disagree that it is about EU regulation. Although that is an important consideration, it is not the fundamental issue. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, put it well when he talked about our general R&D spend and HE spend compared with our peers. These have always been areas where the genius and great achievements that we have had have made us punch above our weight. We ought to be concerned, in a situation where we are facing difficulties, that we do not over-rely on those assets that we have been able to depend on hitherto.

Increasingly, we are hearing concerns expressed about the consequences of leaving. My noble friend Lord Liddle mentioned the problems faced by Lancaster University in continuing to participate, and there have been many similar reports. A famous one concerns the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield, which was thrown out of an EU research consortium after the referendum. There are many of these stories that reflect the problem which we have to address.

The negotiations will be very important. We can be involved in a variety of projects. Withdrawal does not mean that we will have no form of activity, but in my view—to meet the test set by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley—to leap ahead requires us to be more than inventive and more than just associated with these programmes, and indeed to do a lot more. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, made a good point about the European projects that we have to remain involved in; that is tremendously important. Let us consider the sobering story of what has happened in Switzerland, which after its referendum faced a situation where was there a drop in students under the Erasmus programme, funding was withdrawn and access to initiatives was closed. Now, the Swiss pharmaceutical industry is losing its place because it is no longer able to participate in the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative. We have to make sure that we retain our place in these areas.

We welcome the Government’s extension of student funding for current research projects, but it is insufficient. Sticking your finger in the dam is not a long-term strategy. We have to think about what will need to be done in the future—a point made by many noble Lords. We also have to consider the European development funds which provide support for science parks, science-based initiatives and innovative businesses. Some €3.6 billion has been allocated to the UK for the period 2014 to 2020, of which very little has been spent thus far.

I welcome the decision of the High Court this morning to reaffirm the sovereignty of Parliament, and I hope that the Government think about this wisely and do not appeal it. I do not think that it is about blocking; it is about making sure that we deal with these challenges in the right way. As the noble Lord, Lord Paul, said, we need to be constructive. I hope, as many other speakers have said, that we make sure that we can see a detailed approach by the Government; they need to say more rather than less.

The huge degree of consensus and concern across this House on this merits the Minister setting out why there cannot or should not be—I hope that he will announce that there will be—a permanent or long-established framework for consultation and collaboration with those affected, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. We also need an approach to addressing the future of students, researchers and others. They are the people we need in our country, we want them to work here and we want students in our institutions in order to make sure that they are properly financed.

We need a clear statement of commitment to the ambition for universities and for research. That plays not just to the question of our ambition for those areas; it is also, as my noble friend Lord Liddle said, about what sort of country we want to be. My noble friend Lord Judd highlighted that it is about what sort of country we want to be not only in the south, but also in the north. That also accounts for the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, about racism and xenophobia. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, made an important point about how outward-looking we are and how others see us—what we say is not what they see, because what we have done is not the act of those who look outwards.

The Government should be very concerned about the Higher Education and Research Bill. We have heard many speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, my noble friends Lord Giddens and Lord Haskel, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Garden, comment that the Government ought to withdraw it and think about it again. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Broers, when he talked about the problems around putting Innovate UK into the research councils, while the right reverend Prelate made a good case for how to deal with the issue. The Government are running the risk of the Bill receiving a great deal of scrutiny and a desire for the use of the instrument of a Select Committee—used previously but only rarely—to make sure that we get the detail right.

Finally, I should like to stress the point about making sure that these matters are adequately covered in the Autumn Statement and in the industrial strategy, and how these things are linked. I turn also to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. If the CEO of Nissan can get a meeting, why cannot the heads of our tremendously important and economically significant institutions get the same sort of access and the same sort of assurances?