Exiting the EU: science and research

On Monday 19 December, I spoke in a debate about the implications for science and research of leaving the EU. It was one of a number of debates that will give MPs the opportunity to debate Brexit and the impact it will have on our country.

You can read my speech here or, at the bottom of this page, watch a recording of my contribution.


I rise to speak in support of UK science and research, particularly in the two world-class universities in Bristol – the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England – one of which is in my constituency and the other just outside it, as well as the business and science incubators, the catapults and the other institutions that value and need a good research environment in the European Union.

Since the referendum I have been talking with the universities about the impact on science and research of a possible exit from the EU. The science carried out at the University of Bristol is pioneering, from better early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease to tackling antimicrobial resistance; from food security to understanding how we can prevent and stop violence against women. The University of Bristol has leading researchers doing vital work.

Meanwhile, across the city in UWE, work is being done on big data, developing flood resilience, improving air quality, shaping sustainable suburbs and improving labour productivity. I am sure we all agree that those are important things.

If I may join in the Higgs boson name-check, Mr Higgs was in the class of 1946 in Cotham School in Bristol West. The school has educated not just Mr Higgs but my nephews and nieces and the sons of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), so I am very fond of it. I am glad to be able to get a Higgs mention in.

There are five key issues of concern for science and research, and they are linked; no single strand stands alone. Those issues, which were set out in the recent report by the Science and Technology Committee, are: funding – that has been mentioned quite a lot today, so I will not dwell on it – people, collaboration and influence, regulation, and facilities.

As Professor Ian Diamond, Chair of the Universities UK research policy network, explained, “There is no point having a regulatory framework if you do not have the talent; there is no point having the talent if you do not have access to the grants.”

Kevin Baughan, Chief Development Officer at Innovate UK, said: “We cannot really look at each of those parts individually. We need a strategy and a plan that allows us to move the whole ecosystem forward, because together they take world-class science and turn it into jobs and growth; and together they allow businesses to export, to compete in wider markets and to build broader partnerships.”

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I am in favour of science for science’s sake, but I think it is critical that we are clear about the economic benefits of having world-class universities. The presence of the universities in Bristol contributes such a lot, as do the staff and the students, whether they decide to stay on after graduation or beyond the life of their research project. Some are telling me that they do not want to stay, and they feel as though they might as well take an offer from a university in Berlin, Bonn or Copenhagen. Some who have families or partners from the EU say they no longer feel welcome. That is of great worry to me.

Universities UK has said that it wants the Government to recognise that our universities are one of our best exports. They contribute to the economy directly through income generated, and indirectly through longer-term contribution to knowledge. I am not going to say anything else from that page of my speech, because someone else has already said it. I think it is good to junk things when they have already been said.​

I have every confidence that the universities in Bristol can compete, whatever the circumstances they find themselves in, but the issues of concern that I have mentioned need to be tackled. As well as big universities such as the ones in my constituency, I am concerned about smaller universities, which often specialise in a particular field but which are less well-equipped than the larger universities, with their economies of scale, to weather any storm arising from the uncertainty about Brexit.

In Aberystwyth, the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences – I have to declare an interest, because my niece is a PhD student there – conducts pioneering research into topics from ways to help crops to resist disease to finding out what microbes live in glaciers; that is the project my niece is involved in. Other small institutes such as the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, various institutes for music and the arts, the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Royal Agricultural University all have unique contributions to make. I worry that their size will make it harder for them to weather the storm.

I urge the Government to consider the various options for our relationship with the EU through the lens of what will make it easiest for our universities – of all shapes, sizes and specialisms – to continue to be the world-class institutes that they are. What agreements can we make on free movement of students and researchers? I might as well be honest and open, as I have been in every debate on Brexit so far, about the fact that I am a passionate believer in the value of the free movement of people, and I think that universities have a strong case to make for why that should apply to them.

What is the best regulatory framework for us to be in in order to collaborate with other EU universities? How can we make sure that British people are not delayed access to new medical treatments because of different rules? One way to ensure that the Government keep those things in mind is, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned, to have the voice of science in the process. I am deeply concerned by the fact that, as the report by the Science and Technology Committee mentions, the post of chief scientific adviser at the Department for Exiting the European Union has not yet been advertised. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on that.

Finally, will the Minister tell us at the end of the debate whether the Government have considered the other recommendations in the report by the Science and Technology Committee? Will the Government commit to keeping student numbers out of the immigration targets and caps? If they have not yet prepared a response to the Select Committee report, when will they do so? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some – or, ideally, all – of these questions, because the production of knowledge is one of the things we do best in this country and one of the things I am proudest of in my constituency.

 

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