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Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I am grateful to the Deputy First Minister for making that relevant point. I am sure that, like his colleagues, he heard the evidence that the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee took last year. The chair of the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee said that if a sector of our economy was not of high priority, like the financial sector in the City of London, it might have to restrict itself after Brexit. The committee repeatedly cited areas of Scotland’s economy that are not only essential to our wellbeing as a nation but very much dependent on freedom of movement and our ability to attract people. Those areas were, in essence, dismissed as being acceptable casualties of the Brexit process.

Edinburgh university’s pilot scheme to register, in advance of Brexit, European citizens who are living here opens this month. A number of European citizens who work at Edinburgh university have told me that they do not intend to take part and that they do not know of any other EU nationals who are members of staff who intend to take part. The reason for that is complete mistrust of the Home Office. They appreciate their university’s support but they fear that their documents will be lost or that they will be wrongly ordered to leave the country, as has already happened to others. They know the Home Office’s reputation—through the racist deportation of citizens from the Windrush generation and the incompetence that has already seen some EU citizens being wrongly told to leave—and they rightly ask why they should be guinea pigs for the department’s latest project.

I will take a moment to highlight some of the brilliant research and training benefits that we get through EU membership, which directly impact on communities in the west of Scotland. The University of the West of Scotland has certainly benefited from such opportunities. Working with Queen’s University Belfast and Dundalk Institute of Technology in the Republic of Ireland, it has secured €7.7 million to research chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The funding has been used to create the border and regions airways training hub, which has the appropriate acronym of BREATH. It employs about 30 research and doctoral students in high-level advanced medical research jobs. Earlier this year, BREATH won a Northern Ireland healthcare award for its research on lung disease. The award-winning research project brings immense benefits to the west of Scotland, north and south Ireland and anybody around the world who is affected by COPD.

The BREATH project that is jointly hosted by UWS is exactly the kind of cross-border advanced medical research that EU funding makes possible. Although I am grateful that the UK Government has guaranteed the current funding cycle—the BREATH project is not under immediate threat—that will last only for the next 18 months. Where will the next advanced medical research project come from? Will institutions be able to collaborate across borders and attract the most talented researchers to work on projects?

EU funding and programmes are not just for people with PhDs doing advanced medical research. West College Scotland benefits immensely from Erasmus+, which the Parliament recently debated after a committee inquiry.

The college participates in the enhancing employability and skills through mobilities programme, partnered with the Aarhus business network in Denmark and the Vamia vocational institute in Finland. The college students get more opportunities to develop their skills abroad and benefit from experiences outside Scotland. Just this summer, students from the professional cookery course had placements in Aarhus, so next time members are in Paisley or Greenock and they experience Scandinavian cuisine—which I am sure is a regular occurrence for members across the chamber—they will know where those skills come from and that they are benefiting from an EU programme such as Erasmus+.

The scale and depth of opportunities that are available to our universities, colleges and other institutions through our research, collaboration, funding, exchanges and that fundamental right to freedom of movement is hard to overstate. It is immensely frustrating to see that it is at risk. We are fast running out of time, but there is a window in which we can avoid this nonsense and reverse the damage that is already done. I hope that we can seize that opportunity.