Lord Soley: Are science and research at risk post-Brexit?

Posted On: 
3rd November 2016

Lord Soley of Hammersmith writes for PoliticsHome ahead of his PQ on the future of science and research in a post-Brexit Britain.

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The decision to leave the EU will have a profound effect on the UK – and on the EU. I do not believe the decision will be reversed at any time in the foreseeable future. So we now have to work out a new relationship with the EU and one that is mutually beneficial. In short, forget soft and hard Brexit and start thinking of a more constructive approach which marries British interests to EU interests and allows a settlement where the UK has a close relationship with the EU but which also recognises that other member states in the EU may well be moving towards ‘ever closer union’.

This is where the universities and science can play a leading role. An advanced science base is essential in the modern world. Britain has that advanced base and the advanced higher educational system that goes with it. The higher education sector is a British success story. It is in our interest and in the interest of the EU to maintain that advanced educational and scientific base and the transnational co-operation which is an essential part of continuing success.

Currently there is a real fear that our universities and research work will suffer a very damaging blow. It need not and must not be so. Both EU and UK universities need a close working relationship and it is the job of the negotiators to make that happen. Ideally we will negotiate a bespoke deal which establishes a special relationship between the UK and EU on scientific research and the ability of scientists and researchers to move between universities and research establishments throughout Europe.

Negotiations should aim at protecting scientific exchanges and co-operation of the type that now exists between research establishments. Agreement on funding is particularly important and the Horizon 2020 funding programme is central to that. I want the government to give a high priority to negotiating access to Horizon 2020 and of course, for the UK to continue to pay our contribution.

Equally important is the ability to exchange students and staff. UK universities want to continue attracting the best staff from around the world so the freedom of movement issue which has been so contentious has to be negotiated in a way that allows for exchanges of staff and students.

This is a big ‘ask’ but an important one. Is it realistic? I am not sure but the benefits of this co-operation is not just to the UK – it benefits all of the EU and European Economic Area countries.

Let me give just one example of the benefits of joint working. FLARECAST is a fully automated solar flare forecasting system. It is vital to protect all our electronic communications, technologies and power transmission. It is funded from the Horizon 2020 budget. The UK government recently guaranteed that they will underwrite funding for approved Horizon 2020 projects applied for before the UK leaves the EU – but what is needed is a way of continuing that funding beyond the point at which we leave the EU.

It is difficult to get precise figures on the benefits and costs to the UK of the EU research budgets but the UK is one of the largest recipients of EU research money The Office of National Statistics reported an indicative figure of 5.4 billion euros for the period 2007 to 2013 and received some 8.8 billion euros back in direct funding for R and D.

If the negotiations get entrenched in arguments about soft or hard Brexit we will all be the losers. A positive EU/UK relationship is vital to our future and beneficial all European countries.