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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education) 2:45 pm, 3rd November 2016

I can certainly write to the noble Lord and copy other noble Lords into a letter about this matter, but I fear I am not able to go further than other Ministers have gone. I understand the point that the noble Lord makes.

To continue on Horizon 2020, I acknowledge the enormous contribution my noble friend Lord Willetts made to the strength of the research base while he was Minister for Universities and Science. I understand that he played an important role in discussions that led to Horizon 2020 being a well-funded part of the EU budget and simpler for researchers to navigate. I am also grateful to my noble friend for his suggestions on how we can continue to collaborate with the EU on Horizon 2020. He raised one or two points, including the possibility of parallel funding. I can assure him that this will be part of those discussions.

Commissioner Moedas has also made it very clear that UK participants are not to be discriminated against when they apply for Horizon 2020 grants. He said:

“Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality. So I urge the European scientific community to continue to choose their project partners on the basis of excellence”.

The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, continues to be in close contact with Commissioner Moedas. BEIS, the new department, working closely with all relevant departments such as the DfE, remains vigilant and open to any evidence of problems. As a reassurance, we have a dedicated inbox for people to send in details of any concerns. I know that the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord Bragg, cited specific examples of where there may be problems. The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, also mentioned Leeds; my son graduated there this year. I noted with concern also the news from Cambridge about the 14% reduction in applications from EU students.

Although we have had some anecdotal evidence of people being asked to stand down from consortia or project-lead positions, there are no clear-cut examples specifying projects or consortia that have turned down UK participants. These anecdotes show that there has been some adverse reaction following the vote, but we also have anecdotal stories of UK researchers who were initially told that they were no longer welcome in consortia, but then later the position change—possibly connected to the funding announcement. We are engaging with the people who emailed us to check whether any new or other issues are being experienced, because this is an important matter. The announcement on underwriting Horizon 2020 funding has led to a slow-down in people contacting us and we want to make sure they keep sharing their information with us.

I want to reference comments on Horizon 2020 made recently to the Higher Education and Research Bill Committee by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz of the University of Cambridge. He said:

“We are quite confident that we can deal with the assurances that the Government have given in the short term … We have not experienced what many institutions have experienced, with people not being asked to continue on grants”.

Looking to the future, we will work with all stakeholders to ensure that our universities and researchers are protected as the UK establishes its new position in the world. So how can we be sure that the UK continues to excel?

First, I say in response to the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Lipsey, that EU nationals who have lived continuously and lawfully in the UK for at least five years have an automatic and permanent right to reside under EU law. EU nationals who have lived continuously and lawfully in the UK for at least six years are also eligible to apply for British citizenship if they would like to do so.

As mentioned earlier, what happens after Brexit is up for negotiation. We are clear that we need to understand the impact of any changes we make to the UK’s immigration system on the different sectors of the economy and the labour market, including in terms of the highly skilled staff, both academics and technicians, who underpin university departments and businesses. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, raised this issue and I hope that this gives her some reassurance that we are taking this matter extremely seriously.

Let me clear that we recognise that EU researchers have contributed greatly to the diversity and talent base of the UK’s workforce. We hugely value the contribution of EU and international staff. This has been emphasised in recent statements by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, where he has said:

“If we are to win in the global marketplace, we must win the global battle for talent. Britain has always been one of the most tolerant and welcoming places on the face of the earth. It must and it will remain so”.

Secondly, we must ensure that excellent collaboration in cutting-edge research can continue with European and international partners—this important point was raised by my noble friend Lord Willetts and others. We are now more ambitious than ever to build global research partnerships that not only put the UK at the forefront of international research on emerging global challenges but support the economic development and social welfare of developing countries around the world. We should remember that academic and research co-operation in Europe predates the EU by centuries, and the community of European academic institutions has always been much wider than the EU.

The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and my noble friend Lord Willetts asked what type of consultation the Government were engaging in on post-Brexit research funding. I can reassure the House that the Government have been talking extensively to stakeholders. Jo Johnson announced during last week’s Select Committee inquiry into similar issues that he would invite a number of senior representatives of UK research and innovation to a high-level consultative forum to discuss the opportunities and issues arising from the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Thirdly, we must ensure that UK researchers continue to have access to, and leadership of, world-class research facilities. We have access to major research infrastructures across the world, such as the Large Hadron Collider, in which the UK plays a leading role. We are a major partner in building new infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array, whose global headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank—I think the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, raised that point.

Finally, we need to ensure a supportive funding and regulatory landscape. As a Government, we recognise the contribution that our world-class research base makes to our economy and well-being. This is why we have committed to protect the science budget in real terms. The reforms that we are introducing through the Higher Education and Research Bill will give us a best-in-class regulatory system for higher education, and UKRI will be a strong voice for UK research and innovation on the global stage.

I am a little short of time; I will address as many questions as I can in the time available. Otherwise, as the House would expect, I will write to noble Lords.

My noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Lords, Lord Broers and Lord Kakkar, spoke of the concerns for science and innovation in relation to the new industrial strategy. It was mentioned that VAT changes might be made; for example, charges on buildings cohabited by business and universities. I can reassure the House that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary are clear that building a productive, open and competitive business environment is vital. Key to this Government’s aims will be delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy that gets the whole economy firing. The objective of the industrial strategy is to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of an economy that works for all. There are three key themes. First, we can look again at the regulatory environment. We have to work hard to make sure that the European framework covers excellent research and innovation—data protection is an example of that. Secondly, we can look afresh at how we optimise international collaborations, mentioned in debate today. Thirdly, we have an opportunity through the industrial strategy to put research and innovation at the heart of what we do.

I shall stop there. As I said, I will write to noble Lords addressing the good number of questions that were raised in this long debate.