Norman Lamb: Interests of UK science must be at the heart of the Brexit negotiations

Posted On: 
15th September 2017

Both sides of the Brexit debate must unite to protect UK science, urges Norman Lamb

Norman Lamb says membership of the European Medicines Agency has guaranteed access to vital medical treatments
PA Images

Brexit tensions are flaring up once again following the summer recess. Heated debates persist around immigration, the divorce bill and the single market, while ‘Michel Barnier’ and ‘Henry VIII powers’ will have been popular Google searches among political head-bangers in recent weeks.

However, there has been relatively little focus in the media on what Brexit could mean for science – from clinical trials to nuclear research, particle physics to the space industry.

Leaving the EU could have profound implications for the science and research community in the UK.  Britain benefits enormously from funding and collaboration on a range of EU research programmes. We enjoy access to the most talented scientists and researchers across the continent. Membership of bodies such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has guaranteed access to vital medical treatments, among other things.

So it is little wonder that there is a deep sense of uncertainty within the science and technology sector, which I have witnessed first-hand since being elected as chair of the Science and Technology Committee just a couple of months ago.

Whichever side of the debate you are on – Leave or Remain, hard Brexit or soft Brexit – it is imperative that the interests of Britain’s science and research institutions are at the heart of negotiations. Nobody would benefit from weakening the successful partnerships that we currently enjoy in the EU, which are central to the national interest: our economy, our health, our energy and our security.

Ministers have attempted to provide some reassurance by publishing a paper outlining ongoing commitment to scientific cooperation after leaving the EU. Sadly, this ‘vision’ is lacking in detail and raises more questions than answers regarding the future of these fruitful partnerships.

Warm words about science are welcome; but having taken 15 months for this paper to emerge, it is disappointing that it doesn’t represent any real progress on the issues raised by the previous S&T Committee’s report back in November 2016.

I welcome the fact that the government hopes for continued involvement with a number of important EU schemes – including the flagship Horizon 2020 research fund, the Galileo and Copernicus space programmes, and in nuclear research.

But we are no clearer on whether the government will ultimately be prepared to make the financial contribution necessary to remain part of Horizon 2020 and its successor scheme. If we fail to reach an agreement on this, there is a risk that British universities and research institutes could badly lose out. To address some of the immediate anxieties, I have written to ministers seeking certainty for universities who are starting to shape their bids for grants which would only be awarded after we leave the EU.

The paper also seems to confirm the government’s intention to leave the nuclear agency, Euratom. There are real concerns across the political divide that this could have far-reaching consequences, not only for nuclear research, but also for the availability of some essential cancer treatments in the NHS.

Similarly, the pledge to “work closely with the EMA” will be of little consolation if our withdrawal from this agency means that we are at the back of the queue for pharmaceutical companies looking to get their new medicines approved.

But one of the crucial questions that remains unanswered is how post-Brexit immigration rules will affect our ability to attract the top scientists and researchers. The government’s paper offers a vague promise to welcome “the brightest and best” once freedom of movement has ended. But more detail is needed to reassure science institutions who are rightly concerned that access to the best skills could be compromised.

These are just some of the concerns that ministers must address in the months ahead. High-level commitments need to be backed up by action and a flexible approach to negotiations to promote Britain’s scientific interests, and I am urging the government to appoint a chief scientific adviser within the Department for Exiting the EU to ensure this happens.

The scientific community is clear that collaboration on science and innovation must be as strong after Brexit as it has been during our membership of the EU. I am determined to make sure that their voices are heard. My hope is that, on this ambition, both sides of the Brexit debate can unite.   


Norman Lamb is Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk and chair of the Science and Technology Committee