Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2018.

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Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

It is important to recognise that 1,000 of the staff at the

Francis Crick Institute were surveyed. That is the reason why I want to talk about UK science. Far from politicking, they are concerned about their jobs and their futures, and about the very essence of science and why we do it. Gillian Martin has drawn a fair implication about their motive in making the arguments.

Just 3 per cent think that the scientific community is being listened to and represented in discussions. The institute’s director, Paul Nurse, said:

“A hard Brexit could cripple UK science and the government needs to sit up and listen.”

Far from any member in the chamber being negative, we are simply pointing out and illustrating the depth of the concern that exists across the science community here in Scotland and right across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

How is it right and in the country’s interests to turn our back on international people who have worked and lived here and furthered our knowledge and our learning; to turn our back on international students by taking a scandalous approach to immigration that basically says, “You’re not welcome here”; to turn our back on the flowering of ideas that comes from international collaboration and exchange; and therefore to damage the international reach and attractiveness of a major Scottish success story—our strength in our universities and our world-leading research?

The Royal Society of Edinburgh sets that out with commendable accuracy in its briefing for today’s debate. It says that 18 per cent of academic staff in Scotland are EU nationals and that 13 per cent come from further afield, which are higher proportions than in any other part of the UK. Some 25 per cent of staff in Scotland who only carry out research are EU nationals. In engineering and technology, that rises to nearly half of all the academics who are employed here. How do those who wish to take us out of the European Union propose to attract such talented Europeans to work in Scotland in the future? As we have all been told when we go to the universities or institutions in our own parts of Scotland, they might simply choose to work elsewhere.

Many Scottish institutions collaborate with European partners, although that has gone backwards since 2016. Now it will get worse. The RSE makes the crucial point that, notwithstanding UK Government reassurances that funding for UK research will not suffer as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, that cannot compensate for the potential loss of the added value that is gained from full UK participation in EU programmes. That strikes me as being the essence of the argument and it illustrates the dangers and what we are about to lose.

Horizon 2020 demonstrates that collaboration, as Iain Gray and others have mentioned, but few in academia, never mind in politics, believe that a Brexiteer-led UK Government will pay one penny more into the programme after 2020 than is being put into the current programme. I ask members to imagine trying to convince Prime Minister Dominic Raab to write a cheque to Brussels for anything, never mind for science in a programme that would support universities in the United Kingdom, yet the programme has brought all those advantages to Scotland and the UK.

As well as Scotland’s universities, the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College will be directly affected by the lack of access to EU funds. Those land-based bodies have been ideally placed to benefit from collaborative funding projects. Compared with that of the rest of the UK, Scotland’s land-based research is simply more joined up from producer to researcher, which makes Scotland internationally useful for collaboration and partnerships in the area. The UK research council does not do that and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has no funds in the area, so what chance is there of that essential work being replicated?

There appears to be no obvious upside to dragging the UK’s and Scotland’s higher education sector out of the EU. That is why so many in the sector want a right to vote on whatever cobbled-up negotiation appears out of London and Brussels. This Parliament should speak for our universities and research sector and all the people who work in it, and they should be given a right to a vote on their future.

I move amendment S5M-14638.2, to insert at end:

“, in addition to providing unequivocal support for a public vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal.”