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Science and Technology Committee Discusses Implications of Brexit for UK Science and Research

last modified Jul 07, 2016 03:55 PM
A summary of the first session from the Science and Technology Committee hearing from senior research leaders on the implications of Brexit.



Yesterday the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee began hearing evidence on ‘Leaving the EU: Implications and opportunities for science and research’.


It heard from senior science leaders, Professor Ottoline Leyser CBE FRS, Chair, Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group, Dr Sarah Main, Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering, Professor Angus Dalgleish, Scientists for Britain, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Chair of the Universities UK Research Policy Network, Stuart Pritchard, EU Affairs Manager, Wellcome Trust, and Professor Martin Vetterli, President, National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation.


Witnesses were asked questions about the principals and process that should guide upcoming negotiations on Brexit from the perspective of the scientific research community, as well as specific implications of Brexit on the UK’s research-intensive economy and its leading role in many important international scientific collaborations.



Importance of science and research to UK economy


Each witness was asked to provide some guiding principals in order to inform forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Overall the expert witnesses referred to the successful science and research sector in the UK and how the UK’s relationship with international partners is crucial to that endeavor.


The guiding principal of science (referring to science, social science and humanities) is an endeavor undertaken by people, for people, to try and address societal problems and improve prosperity for the future.


Science is fundamentally a transnational endeavor; it requires networks and collaboration and this diversity is crucial in doing the best science and in mitigation against misconduct. Future negotiations need fundamentally to protect the extraordinary benefits of science and preserve the leadership role of the UK in science. 


A commitment to the principal of the UK as a science and research-intensive economy is required for the future UK policy-making. This is a commitment that builds on current UK science strengths; 8 out of the top 10 universities in Europe are in the UK. This principal should be stated clearly and policies put in place in order to preserve and strengthen this position during negotiations.


The science community seeks reassurance that there will be voice for science in upcoming negotiations on Brexit and a clear process by which science will be represented in the negotiations.


Political leadership


Political leaders need to ensure that science is at the heart of negotiations and to reassure the research community that this is the case.


Clarity of vision is required over the future scientific and research-intensive economy in the UK.


Clarity is required over policies to negotiate with EU members in order to sustain the vision.


Immediately, the research community seeks reassurance over current arrangements to end uncertainty, which is already having damaging impacts; for example, ensure current commitments by the UK government on Horizon 2020 Funding and the position of current non-UK EU scientists and researchers working in the UK.                                                                                                                      


Key areas for negotiation are:


  • Access to funding
  • Access to people
  • Access to collaborations and networks
  • Regulatory framework



However, witnesses emphasized the connections between the key aspects of funding, regulation and free movement in relation to the research economy – remove any one aspect and the system will fall.





There should be a government commitment to future UK research funding levels (3% of GDP on R&D) to bring the UK up to comparative levels with European partners); currently the UK spends less than some European partners.


It is vital that the UK continues to have access to European funding and collaborations.


The UK is currently a net contributor to EU funding so a commitment is required that the UK will maintain that level of funding commitment after Brexit but also a commitment to maintain the collaborative and structural types of funding which currently comes from the EU to the UK, which supports innovation in particular areas (for example, in parts of Wales), and which is currently not replicated in other funding sources.


The government needs to guarantee both current funding grants and the position of people currently working in the UK. 




The mobility of people is regarded as the lifeblood of science and it is important both for UK scientists to travel and for the UK to continue to be regarded as an open country.


It should be recognized that research is a mobile endeavor requiring long-term collaboration, and short-term access in terms of attendance at conferences, visits and exchange. In scientific research there are lots of short-term visits to other centres and laboratories that are required as well as the ability to operate as part of the international recruitment and exchange of scientific researchers.


Although the Brexit debate was often framed in terms of allowing people to come to the UK to work and study, the UK is in fact operating in an international, competitive market to attract leading scientists and to retain its own scientists.


Fast-moving research fields are the most susceptible to problems with free movement because people will be appointed and research will be located in the most suitable location, within the least complex system. Witnesses made reference to anecdotal evidence of decisions already being made not to invest or locate in the UK following the Brexit vote.



Participation in Collaborations and Networks


The UK is viewed as an open academic environment in which to conduct research and this should be maintained through Brexit negotiations. 


There is a complex picture regarding UK research facilities and detailed analysis will have to be done to assess the different arrangements for UK research facilities and implications of Brexit negotiations on each of these facilities.


Regulatory Framework


Witnesses were asked what future model for the UK in Europe would best serve science and research?


The options being discussed for the UK following Brexit are to adopt one of the current models for non-EU countries (associated state status) or some form of enhanced status. Witnesses expressed a preference for an enhanced model because current models for non-EU countries provide access but importantly not influence. It is important for British science to be able to access the best people and collaborations, and also to be able to influence the collective, international, scientific, research endeavor.


It is likely that there will be costs incurred in order to develop and manage a UK-specific regulatory framework for research.


The regulatory environment is complex and there are many potential specific implications of Brexit that will need to be properly assessed; for example, specific research areas such as data science research taking place at leading UK institutions could be affected by changes to data sharing arrangements.


Alternative Models – the Swiss Model?


Switzerland is not a member of the EU and has ‘associated state’ status. Like the UK it has a thriving research economy and questions were asked regarding Swiss experience of negotiating in order to participate and collaborate with EU partners. The Swiss experience confirms that access to free movement for talent is crucial. Switzerland also has its own regulatory framework, for example, regarding pharmaceuticals, and that can impact on collaboration. Switzerland’s position with respect to the EU is to be renegotiated in 2017.


The committee requested further written details (including cost where possible) on the Swiss regulatory system.  


Current Risks


The committee agreed that it is currently too early to undertake a proper review of the impact of Brexit on science and research; such a review requires a longer-term horizon.


However, witnesses made reference to anecdotal evidence coming in already regarding joint grant applications and companies retreating on imminent decisions to locate headquarters in UK that are a result of current uncertainty.


Witnesses also raised specific potential risk to social science funding that does not have comparable funding sources outside EU funding programmes.


Overall there was a sense of urgency from witnesses in requesting a clear statement of support from the UK government at this time both in terms of recognizing the important voice for UK research and science in forthcoming Brexit negotiations and in making specific commitments on funding and movement of people to reassure the scientific community.



Policy Actions Required Now


  • On freedom of movement: provide a guarantee for the estimated 31,000 current non-UK EU citizens working in UK institutions as scientists and researchers.


  • On funding: Government to provide a guarantee for current funding grants and people (for example Horizon 2020).


  • On regulation: consideration of alternative possible regulatory models, including costs associated with alternative models currently in place (e.g. Switzerland).



Further information and discussion


Detailed written accounts are to be provided where possible regarding the potential implications of Brexit to specific sectors, research programmes and facilities by the institutions and organisations represented today[1] as well as documentation of current evidence regarding decisions taken by science and research organisations as a result of the Brexit vote.

[1] The Royal Society has already produced reports on changes to regulations and research facilities as a result of Brexit, which suggests a complicated picture with a variety of different arrangements to be considered.

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