On Thursday 3 November there was a debate in the Lords Chamber about the impact of the vote to leave the European Union on universities and scientific research. Below is a summary of the debate that took place.
Lord Soley (Lab) began by stating that scientific research and development should be a critical part of developing a productive relationship between the UK and EU. Science, technology and universities are critical to the development and success of any modern economy, and this creates the need for ’a structure that makes sure that the UK does not slip back in its significant achievements in research and higher education’.
Lord Soley also noted that:
- The movement of students and staff is crucial to facilitate and promote scientific research. Scientific research is international, transnational within the European Union, and interdependent. The work carried out is of relevance and impact to large groups, not just certain nationalities.
- Funding is an important issue, but it is not just whether funding will continue at the current level or, increase; it is also about predictability of funding during the negotiation process. The length of a proposed project will directly affect the approval of bids for research money, and more certainty is needed to allow longer projects to continue to receive funding.
- Regulation and its predictability are also central to the debate: it is important to be able to arrive at a system of regulating standards that encourages scientific research.
- Leaving the EU but remaining in the European Economic Area could mean that the UK would continue to have access to funds from both Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council.
Networks and collaboration
Lord Willets (Con) highlighted the need to focus on networks like the Horizon 2020 project, rather than just on funding, as this kind of institutional partnership is as or more important than funding – partnerships with other countries or between institutions present a longer-term and more effective way to secure funding.
Baroness Blackstone (Lab) noted that ‘High-quality medical research is vital to innovation in the treatment of patients, in both discovering cures and making sure that their symptoms are alleviated so that they have a better quality of life.’ She cites the example of children with rare diseases to emphasise this and the importance of a longer term plan: ‘75% of which affect children, and 30% of children with a rare disease will die before their fifth birthday.’
She also highlighted the importance of networks in research, to ensure that cross-European trials can continue. She quoted Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science and Research, “Britain’s success as a science powerhouse hinges on our ability to collaborate with the best minds from across Europe and the world.”
Lord Kakkar (CB) noted that networks are ‘vitally important, particularly in areas of medical research such as rare diseases’ and questioned the Government on whether these networks would be funded in future. He also noted that there is now an opportunity for the UK to ‘collaborate beyond Europe with networks in the United States, Asia and among other Commonwealth countries, where there will be the opportunity for enhanced research collaboration.’
Lord Broers (CB) argued that we should consider the possibility of a ‘Hard Brexit’ and work to understand the options in the scenario that we are no longer able to participate as a full member of EU programmes. He proposed a redistribution of funds from Horizon 2020 to Innovate UK, ‘which would distribute it to industry and the universities through programmes optimised for the UK.’
Lord Haskel (Lab) is a member of the board of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which aims to keep parliamentarians and parliamentary staff informed about all matters relating to science. He proposed the introduction of a Higher Education and Research Bill – this would change the way in which science is funded and could help to meet the additional cost of research that will be necessary if Britain tackles issues alone rather than through a European centre of excellence.
Lord Mair (CB) said: The Prime Minister has stated that the Government are committed to ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as the UK withdraws from the EU. If this to be achieved, the major funding gap for scientific research caused by leaving the EU must be filled, one way or another, by the Government. Most importantly, the UK must remain a magnet for international talent.’
Baroness Walmsley (LD) suggests that the NHS capitalise on its potential as a ‘single site’ for clinical trials: ‘As a closed healthcare system for a large and diverse population, with access to data across the entire patient journey, the NHS is a unique selling point for conducting clinical trials in the UK.’
Lord Mendelsohn (Lab) cites the negative example of Switzerland as a case where withdrawal from aspects of the European Project led to a number of negative consequences (drop in students on the Erasmus programme, withdrawal of funding, access to initiatives closed) and a diminishing position of their pharmaceutical industry, largely owing to the fact that Switzerland is no longer able to take part in the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative.
Conclusion and actions
Provided by the Viscount Younger of Leckie:
- Funding for research: The Chancellor has confirmed that structural and investment fund projects signed before the UK departs the EU will be guaranteed by the Treasury after Brexit. Funding for structural and investment projects will be honoured by the Treasury, so long as they meet the value-for-money criteria and are in line with domestic strategic priorities.
- Developments in 2018-2019: The same terms of access to European research funding, such as Horizon 2020, will remain in place for as long as Britain is still a member of the EU.
- Requests to stand down: ‘Although we have had some anecdotal evidence of people being asked to stand down from consortia or project-lead positions, there are no clear-cut examples specifying projects or consortia that have turned down UK participants’.