Chris Skidmore: “This Brexit deal is fantastic for science"
Reappointed to the front bench in December, Chris Skidmore was thrown into the deep end. With Brexit just months away, he had his work cut out for him. But the Science Minister, who says no deal would be “very difficult” for the sector, is working hard to ensure the UK is ready for all eventualities – and to take advantage of new opportunities. He talks to Sebastian Whale
For a published historian working as a minister in government, Chris Skidmore must hardly believe his luck. “I don’t keep a diary unfortunately,” he says. “That’s probably my greatest regret.”
Though this period isn’t exactly the Science Minister’s specialty – Skidmore has penned books on Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth – he’s aware that these are some unprecedented times. “It’s definitely going down in the history books as being one of the critical decades,” he muses.
Sitting in one of Parliament’s sprawling committee rooms, Skidmore, a former advisor to Michael Gove and David Willetts, reflects on his nine years as an MP. He was elected to represent Kingswood in 2010 a week shy of his 29th birthday. His first frontbench role came as PPS to George Osborne between 2015 and 2016. After the referendum, he was moved to the Cabinet Office, before being appointed vice chairman of the Tory party responsible for policy in January 2018. In December, following the resignation of Sam Gyimah, he was given the dual role of Universities and Science minister.
“Those first five years in the coalition I thought was serious enough,” he recalls. “For those MPs who came in 2015, what they’ve lived through – the intensity, you feel it compared to certainly the first parliament of 2010-2015. You do feel like you are an observer of history.”
It’s a bit strong to say Skidmore was thrown a hospital pass, but with Brexit four months away at the time he took on the role, he had plenty in his in-tray to address. It is no secret that many in the science and higher education industries had and continue to have concerns over the UK’s exit from the EU. Skidmore, who voted Remain, is optimistic about the future, but does not want Britain to take its eye off the ball.
“From my historical perspective, my concern is that we have this heads down moment looking at Brexit, but those clouds will pass, and we need to be prepared to sell a vision, to be able to implement a vision going forwards. That’s why in this role science is absolutely critical, not just in terms of making sure we put together an effective international strategy, working with our European partners and our international partners and really creating a new vision for where Britain sees its role in the world,” he says.
To crack on with addressing these issues, Skidmore has a solution; back Theresa May’s Brexit deal. “It’s fantastic for science, it’s fantastic for universities, it’s fantastic for collaboration,” he says. “At the same time, we want to then look at where we diverge. It’s those moments of diversion, it’s the opportunity to be able to work outside of structures that we’ve previously been committed to.”
Should the Prime Minister’s deal be ratified, the UK would continue to participate in the EU’s flagship programme for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, and its international mobility programme, Erasmus+. The UK is a net receiver in funding for Horizon 2020, having put in £4bn and received £5.7bn back.
“So, when people talk about the £39bn being some kind of gift to the EU, it’s not,” Skidmore says about the so-called divorce bill. “A significant proportion of that money covers my brief, and I’m keen to demonstrate and communicate the continued value of why we need to do these things.”
But there is uncertainty about the UK’s continued participation in the follow up programmes after 2020. The Government’s mission, Skidmore continues, is to associate to Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020. Negotiations for associate membership (the UK will no longer be full members after Brexit) will begin later this year.
In a bid to diversify investment streams, Skidmore announces plans to review establishing a new international fund for research. The Government has asked Sir Adrian Smith, the director of the Alan Turing institute, to look at how the fund would work in practice. The consultation would involve national academies, UK Research and Innovation and the science community.
Skidmore says the fund could help Britain meet its pledge to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027. “We know that our reputation for research and our tertiary education brand is incredibly strong – we need to strengthen it. So, these funds I see supplementing our opportunity to associate with Horizon Europe,” he says. Skidmore is also hopeful of receiving a “good deal for science” at the upcoming spending review.
From his talks with European counterparts, Skidmore believes there is a “genuine degree of warmth” towards the UK’s continuation in the follow up programmes to Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. “The question will be with a new Horizon Europe programme and new regulations, is there a new form of association. Part of the future political declaration, I’m really keen to explore how can we create the closest possible links,” he answers.
“We are in this Catch 22 situation of while we don’t know whether it’s deal or no deal, the Commission being unable to get down to discussing some of the technical details of the negotiations that I need to take place to make sure we can completely resolve the future.”
The Government has sought to reduce uncertainty over no-deal by pledging to underwrite funding for UK participants in Erasmus and Horizon projects until the end of 2020. Skidmore has written to fellow EU ministers outlining the UK’s guarantees.
But in a no deal Brexit, firms would not be eligible to receive money from three of the EU’s major funding programmes; the European Research Council, Marie Sklodowska-Curie and SME Instrument Grants, which account for 44% of the total EU science money Britain receives.
“I’m continuing to work with the Treasury to be in contact with them about sort of what mitigating opportunities there will be,” Skidmore says. “I’ve been open and honest about that and partly some of the work we want to take forward with Adrian Smith on the international fund is what is a replacement to the ERC.”
No deal would be “very difficult” for the science community, Skidmore concedes. But he has faith in the Government’s preparedness for the scenario – he has spent the morning passing statutory instruments before we meet – and once more champions the PM’s Brexit agreement.
“The deal is a good deal for what we need to achieve, it allows us to continue into Horizon 2020, it allows us to continue in Erasmus, it allows for continuity and certainty across the board. But in the event of no deal, we have taken the best possible preparations we can do to alleviate some of the concern,” he says.
With the second meaningful vote expected on 12 March, the Prime Minister has said MPs will get a chance to vote on no deal and extending Article 50 if her Withdrawal Agreement is defeated again. Will Skidmore, whose constituency voted leave, seek to prevent no deal?
“I’ve always been clear that we’re leaving the European Union and if there happens to be a delay because it means that we’re able to ensure that we get the deal over the line then wait and see,” he says.
“My constituency voted Leave. I respect those decisions. And so, if we happened to end up in a no deal scenario I will implement a no deal scenario… If it means a delay of a couple of months, the public recognise that that is not necessarily a betrayal.”
“My greatest fear is Brexit not happening,” he adds, saying it could lead to the “corrosion” of UK democracy.
Beyond funding, concerns in the science and higher education industry centre on access to talent and the continued flow of researchers into the UK. In January, the Russell Group of Universities said there had been a nine per cent decrease in the number of EU postgraduate research students enrolling at its institutions, matching a nine per cent decline the previous year.
Skidmore points to recent UCAS application figures showing a record number (63,690) of students from outside the EU applying to UK institutions this year, an increase of 9%. He also highlights the latest QS World University statistics, with the UK in first place in 13 out of 48 subject rankings, three higher than a year earlier.
“I don’t want there to be a corrosive effect where people start talking down the UK and that makes the international assumptions that somehow there is a problem here. We are investing more money than ever before in science, research and development, more than the last 40 years. An extra £7bn has gone in between 2016 and 2021,” he says.
Turning to the immigration white paper, Skidmore says the Government must “allow for mobility in the science sector”. Is he calling for workers to be given a special status?
“Well, it’s whether you have a special status or whether you look at the salary cap,” he says, referring to the proposed £30,000 immigrant salary threshold. “If there is anything to be taken away from this, it’s to make sure that we keep the UK in a place where we are competing against China, Canada and Australia for student places.”
Skidmore knows the historical significance of this period in politics. His dual concerns centre around ensuring the referendum result is respected and setting out a vision for post-Brexit Britain. “When it comes to science and research, it is going to be critical that we take advantage of and build on our existing excellence,” he concludes.