Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I welcome the minister to his new post. I apologise for missing the first couple of minutes of his speech, but I enjoyed what I did hear.

Within the Brexit debate, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture in the detail of the daily back and forth of negotiations. The future of all sectors in Scotland is at stake, but the future of our universities in particular will be determined in the months to come.

As others have said, Scotland has until now more than pulled its weight in cross-border research collaboration, and the success of our universities in securing research income and delivering groundbreaking research is testament to that. The figures for the past few years are impressive. As of July 2018, Scottish organisations had secured almost €533 million of funding from the EU’s horizon 2020 research fund alone. That represents more than 11 per cent of the total UK funding, so we are punching above our weight. The University of Edinburgh, which is within walking distance of where I stand, is the seventh largest individual recipient of horizon 2020 funds—a remarkable achievement that is under threat, as Brexit-backing Tories seem to think that we can simply keep calm and carry on. That is just not good enough.

Oliver Mundell and other Conservative members have accused the other parties of being too negative about this, but we are just repeating what higher education institutions tell us. The Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into the article 50 negotiations and preparedness, and we have received a number of submissions from higher education institutions, which I urge the Conservatives to read.

One of the most worrying submissions came from the University of the Highlands and Islands. It states:

“The university has worked closely with a wide range of EU higher education institutions, some over decades. Whilst many still state that their intention is to continue to work with us, irrespective of the final outcome of Article 50 negotiations, some are becoming hesitant about future collaboration. We have had one example of a research partnership where UHI had been the proposed lead applicant negotiations, however, in response to continuing Article 50 uncertainty, the partnership agreed that the chances of a successful application were greater with a non-UK lead ... This is understandable in the highly competitive process of many EU programme applications—but is a worry for future collaboration.”

The UHI submission goes on to express concerns about other funding streams, such as the Interreg VA cross-border programmes. It says:

“there is great uncertainty surrounding future access to such programmes”.

It also mentions structural funding, which it says has been “transformational” for the organisation.

The submission from Universities Scotland makes similar points. I mention in particular its concerns about EU nationals in the higher education sector, because it is clearly not convinced by any of the reassurances that are being given by the Tories. Universities Scotland says:

“We are seeking clarity on:

  • What the residency, work and study rights would be of those EU nationals already working, studying or on Erasmus+”
  • What … immigration rules and requirements will be in place for EU nationals
  • How the UK Government’s intended underwrites would work in practice …
  • Whether Scottish HEIs could access replacements to parts of the Horizon 2020 programme …
  • Whether Scottish HEIs could access a replacement to Erasmus+”.

Therefore, Universities Scotland is certainly not reassured by any of the Conservatives’ bland statements that it will be all right on the night.

I commend the Labour amendment, because we need to look to the future, and the future is horizon Europe. The current proposal for the new scheme is that it will have a 20 per cent bigger budget than its predecessor. As one Commission official wryly noted at its launch, the EU27 will gain at our expense because we will not be part of horizon Europe. The official was quoted as saying:

“It’s not only that the cake is bigger than before, but that the guy that was eating more of that cake is not around the table anymore.”

I suppose that we could find grim solace in the fact that at last we have found one example of having your cake and eating it. However, I assume that leave campaigners did not have the universities of the EU27 in mind when they used that phrase.

A key part of the new programme will be to foster collaboration, not only across nations but between industry and academia, to tackle the five big challenges that we face—health, security, digital, climate and food research.

As today’s debate takes place, there is still a lively discussion in Brussels about what matters most and how we need to work together to ensure that horizon Europe delivers on its potential. The UK Government has asserted that Scottish universities will still be able to participate in the future, but I do not see the concrete steps towards delivering that.

Having no deal would, of course, be a disaster. After the performance of the immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, when discussing a no-deal scenario last week, does anybody seriously think that EU nationals would be safe to continue their work in Scotland? That means that nearly a quarter of the research-only staff in Scotland’s universities face an uncertain future. Scotland deserves better than that.