Norman Lamb: “The threat of getting Brexit wrong is very real”
Norman Lamb says Britain’s scientists and researchers face “disaster” unless they get urgent clarity over post-Brexit visa rules, funding and collaboration. The chair of the Science and Technology Committee talks to James Millar
As chair of the Science and Technology Committee Norman Lamb gets to look into all sorts of whizzy and exciting issues, from the rise of artificial intelligence to quantum technology. He, more than most MPs perhaps, has a window on the future.
And despite all the talk of robots taking over our jobs or social media companies colonising our thoughts he admits he favours a vision of the future that is closer to the cartoon utopia of The Jetsons than a gloomy dystopia portrayed in something like Blade Runner. “I instinctively favour a more optimistic view. If you’re a Lib Dem you have to be optimistic,” he laughs, as he sits down with The House ahead of British Science Week.
Lamb’s approach is demonstrated in his committee’s high-profile inquiries into the impact of social media on children and how algorithms increasingly apply in everyday life. He wants to know about the benefits of screen time and how algorithms can make life easier as well as any downsides.
“I’m very much the opposite of a luddite,” he explains. “I think our attitude towards the revolution that is happening should be how do we make it our servant rather than our master.”
But this cheery outlook is being sorely tested by Brexit. Lamb and his committee have held a summit drawing together a huge cast of experts in the science and technology field, quizzed minister Sam Gyimah last week and will go to Brussels later in the spring as part of their inquiry into the impact of leaving the EU. “I think it’s critically important that we focus on the challenge of Brexit and give the science community a parliamentary voice in this process and I think we would be failing in our task if we didn’t do that,” he says. “The threat of getting this wrong is very real.”
Scientists and researchers are used to a global outlook, and Lamb fears that if visa rules that currently apply to immigrants from outside the EU are applied to European experts the results would be “disastrous”. Key research, he says, could leave these shores and take place elsewhere.
“Foreign students, foreign post grads coming to this country, earn this country very substantial sums of money,” he says. “It’s not just the earnings to this country it’s the sense it’s in this country’s interest that we are engaged in the ground-breaking research here that meets the big challenges that we face.
“If you can’t bring together the teams of the best people because the rules create a sort of friction that makes it a less attractive place to come. That will be a great loss to this country.
“It’s a very direct loss. It’s a loss of earnings but it’s also a loss of influence and a loss of ability to lead the search for solutions to the big challenges we face.”
There is an urgency to tackling the future relationship between the UK and the EU when it comes to science and technology because Horizon 2020, the multi-million-euro EU research fund is coming to a close – as it says in the title, it ends in 2020.
Lamb compares the issue to the Irish border in order of magnitude among the Brexit problems that need ironed out. “This is not something that can wait until all the other difficult issues are sorted. Research groups are now planning their research beyond 2020, they don’t know whether they are going to be able to bid into the successor programme so it completely undermines all of the planning work that is necessary now,” he says. “You can’t spend a lot of time developing proposals for a scheme that we then find we’re not part of.”
He wants to see the British government take the initiative. “This is actually an area that ought to be completely uncontroversial. There’s no-one out there manning the barricades with their protest placards saying ‘End Collaboration in Science Now’.
“The government would be smart to do the deal on this now – it’s uncontroversial, it sets the right mood music, it sets the tone for the rest of the discussion. It would send such a positive signal.”
How confident is he that that is going to happen? “I’m not confident,” comes the reply. “I’ve seen no real sign that it’s likely to happen any time soon.” That notorious Lib Dem perkiness only extends so far.
But he’s surprisingly upbeat about the Lib Dems themselves. The party marked its 30th anniversary at the start of this month. It didn’t really celebrate because with fewer MPs than they started with in 1988 there doesn’t seem many reasons to be cheerful.
“We’re not getting our voice heard sufficiently,” Lamb concedes. But he has hope, “I anticipate that some sort of realignment is on its way, and I know that’s a wish that we’ve had for a long time but I think that the strain on the current system is unsustainable and the strain that Brexit places on both the other parties with quite significant fault lines means that could well be the catalyst that breaks the system.”
Lamb doesn’t exactly fit in the system as it stands. He’s a huge fan of cross party working.
Just over a year ago he launched a cross party convention on the NHS and care provision in an effort to change the health service’s traditional role as a political football.
“I think there’s a strong logic for it to happen so I’ll keep arguing for it. It is, I guess, more likely than not that it won’t happen and we’ll just continue to fail the people of this country through a dysfunctional system but I still have a belief in rational politics and in trying to persuade people that it’s worth doing and I’ll keep fighting.”
He’s more optimistic about another cross-party campaign he supports to give those suffering mental health issues ‘recovery space’ when faced with money worries. The government has indicated it supports the idea of ‘breathing space’ – forcing financial companies to back off when customers report mental health episodes to give them time to get debt advice. Recovery space would extend the idea to those too ill to manage their finances alone or get debt advice.
Mental health is an issue close to Lamb’s heart. His son has struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and his sister took her own life. He has spoken out, campaigned and tried to hold the government to account for its promises. He’s using his role at the head of the Science and Technology Committee to champion the issue in innovative ways.
“I’ve got a clear and deep interest in mental health and I was clear that I wanted to get mental health on to the agenda of the committee. So the inquiry that we’ve launched is looking at the impact of trauma, abuse, neglect on children and the impact on their health and wellbeing, their employability, the likelihood of entering the criminal justice system and so forth later in life and then looking at the evidence of what interventions are effective to rescue that child.”
He rejects any accusation that he’s bending the committee’s remit. “This is science. It’s one branch of science but it’s absolutely science and it’s the application of evidence. I don’t think we should turn our noses up at science because it happens to relate to mental health any more than it relates to driverless cars for example. These are just different branches of science.”
Which rather sums up Norman Lamb’s approach to the science and technology committee. Drop in a bit of popular and populist science like driverless cars or social media but harness the heft of the committee to delve deeper and wider into the world of science.
His interest is in the appliance of scientific principles rather than gadgets. “I’m not particularly a geek,” he insists. “And I’m not a scientist either by the way and I think it’s important the committee has scientists alongside non-scientists. You could have a committee made up of 11 stupid scientists who achieve nothing.”
His doesn’t mean all scientists of course. “There are stupid lawyers. There are stupid politicians. There are wise politicians, wise lawyers, wise scientists.”
Lamb’s consensual approach would lead many to put him in the latter category. The true test will be what he can achieve as committee chair.