Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I was happy to take the intervention, even though Mr Mundell never took any of mine. He may say that, but I cannot see many of the people from the scientific and research fraternity who are watching this debate having any confidence that any deal will do anything for them. I have just spoken about a way in which we can give them confidence, and if that deal is on the table—if that is what Mr Mundell is saying—that is fair enough, but I do not think that that is what he is saying. “We are trying” is just not good enough. The Conservatives should get on with it.

We also know that research collaborations between EU partners have significantly more impact than standalone domestic ones.

The latest United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization data show that 62 per cent of the UK’s research outputs are now international collaborations; the United States are on 39 per cent. As Ross Greer said, if someone is in collaboration with lots of other EU partners, they have a window into internationalisation, which has put us ahead of the US for science productivity. That is significant. Collaborations between universities often lead to opportunities for business collaborations across EU countries—that cannot be ignored. There is a big knock-on effect from universities and research partners working together, and it affects other sectors.

We also know that being in the EU not just has afforded the free and easy movement of students, researchers and leads on projects; it has made the flow of equipment and samples to facilitate their work seamless and tariff free. In autumn 2016, I was involved in a debate about the potential impacts of Brexit on research funding. During that debate, I read out a long letter from Samantha Le Sommer, a PhD research student who was working in the University of Aberdeen on groundbreaking cell research—members should remember that, at that time, the UK Government had two years left to negotiate a deal that would limit the potential negative impacts. For reference, the letter is in its entirety in the

Official Report of 4 October 2016. I read it back before I wrote my speech for today’s debate. It is utterly depressing how many of the issues that Sam Le Sommer raised then are still unanswered. In fact, it is not just depressing; it is absolutely scandalous.

Samantha is now Dr Le Sommer, a postdoctoral research fellow working on the development of cell-based treatments for autoimmunity and cancer. She is doing research that will save lives in world-leading medical innovation. I got back in touch with her to ask her how things are now. I got another letter from her, and I would like to read out some of that now.

“Hi Gillian

A lot of damage has already been done—people are leaving, I’ve witnessed good bye party after good bye party as EU scientists on short contracts choose to go home rather than stay here through the uncertainty of Brexit. But UK scientists are also leaving.

I myself am currently applying for jobs in the USA and Canada because I cannot plan a career here if there is a hard Brexit or a deal that is bad for my sector”,

which means that they cannot collaborate. She continues:

“People don’t realise, we are not paid by universities, we’re paid from the grant money researchers get. And a huge amount of that is from the EU. The EU has funded over £2 Bn in UK science since 2014, this is equivalent to around another research council in its entirety.”

I would like to read more out but I do not have the time.

When I finished my speech in October 2016, I said:

“Sam needs answers, Sam’s colleagues need answers and Sam’s university needs answers. Will that funding be replaced? Will that collaboration be possible? Will talented EU citizens still be able to study and work in our universities?”—[

Official Report

, 4 October 2016; c 59.]

We are still asking the same questions two years on. It is a scandal. I do not think that any of the research fraternity who was listening to Oliver Mundell’s speech and its message that they should cheer up will have got any comfort whatsoever.