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Exiting the EU: Science and Research

The debate was commenced by The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (Joseph Johnson)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered exiting the EU and science and research.

I am pleased to introduce today’s debate about science and research, which is one of a number of debates about our exit from the European Union. It is important that we continue to give Members of this House the opportunity to discuss and debate Brexit and the impact it will have on our country.

I would like to say up front that the UK’s science base is not only one of this country’s most impressive national achievements, but one of the strongest in the world. Within the G7, we have the most productive science base in terms of papers and citations per unit of GDP. With our world-class universities, four of which are in the world’s top 10, and 18 in the world’s top 100, we have a long-established system that supports and attracts the brightest minds throughout their career and enables them to generate high-quality research. With less than 1% of the global population and just over 3% of global research and development spend, the UK produces almost one fifth of the most highly cited research articles.

The benefits for our economy are very real. The World Economic Forum ranks the UK among the top four nations in the world for university-industry collaboration in R and D, and we ranked third in the global innovation index in 2016.

If hon. Members want a specific example, they might look at the space sector—a high-growth, high-productivity industry that showcases UK research strengths in a global market. Earlier this month at the European Space Agency Council of Ministers, the Government showed their confidence by investing an extra £1.4 billion in ESA, so that we support the world-class science and innovation underpinning this high-growth sector of the economy. Our investment of €170 million in the exploration programme will bring tangible benefits, ensuring, for example, that the ExoMars rover, which is being built here, in Stevenage, is completed and launched.

Thanks to our investments we now lead the research and innovation programmes in ESA for telecoms, Earth observation and navigation, thereby positioning the UK to seize opportunities in those growing markets. I also signed a new memorandum of understanding with ESA to ensure that its European centre for space applications and telecommunications at Harwell, which is a fast-growing space cluster in Oxfordshire, is the focus for the agency’s commercial exploitation of space data.

Those and earlier investments are delivering results. The space sector in this country is growing strongly. It is now worth £13.7 billion a year to the UK economy, employing just under 40,000 people, and we are ambitious for it. We want to increase our share in the global sector to 10% by 2030, creating 100,000 new jobs.
Space is one of a number of success stories that are in part due to Government investments in collaborative structures with international partners in Europe and around the world—a story that we plan to continue writing long after we have left the European Union.

Nicky Morgan MP, Loughborough 

I welcome the fact that this debate is happening in Government time, and I was delighted to support the Back-Bench application for it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd). I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) in her absence. Had she been here, I would have gently pointed out that Richard III is a rather popular monarch in Leicestershire and has been rather good for our tourist industry.

This debate is important to my constituency, which has Loughborough University at its heart, to my constituents and to our potential life science opportunity zone at Charnwood Campus. It is a shame that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation is not still in his place, because I had hoped that he might have given us an early Christmas present by announcing life science opportunity zone status for the Charnwood Campus. Perhaps the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will make a note of that, although I do not expect him to make such an announcement this evening. I must also mention the other businesses and organisations in my local area that rely on science and research, including the University of Leicester. The Science Minister recently visited Loughborough, so he will know that, according to the 2014 research excellence framework, 65% of Loughborough’s academic staff are involved in internationally-leading research, putting the university 17th out of 154 higher education institutions. It ranks 10th in England for research intensity and generates in excess of £40 million a year in research grants. That experience is directly relevant to the university’s concerns about EU funding and collaboration.

It is right to recognise the commitment of this Government and previous Governments to science and research funding. I pay tribute to the Science Minister—he is now back in his place and if he has not heard from his fellow Minister about my request for an early Christmas present, I suggest he ask now—to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and the previous Member for Havant, who now resides in the other place, for fighting the science corner in successive Budgets, autumn statements and spending rounds. The Government are delivering on their manifesto commitment to protect the science capital budget, and the science budget of £4.7 billion will rise in cash terms every year in this Parliament.

It is fair to say that science and research funding was perhaps not at the forefront of the campaigning or in the general hubbub around 23 June. People do not always understand—I certainly did not before becoming the MP for Loughborough and thus for Loughborough University—what Brexit might mean for innovation, jobs and Britain’s place in the world. The Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee was right when he said that how that aspect of Brexit is handled—I am paraphrasing so I hope that I have got this right—goes to heart of whether we remain an outward-facing nation, leading the world in research and cutting edge science and technology, or whether we cede that position to other countries. One local business put it to me like this:

“Being in the EU puts us in a much larger market than UK alone. It helps to attract and employ the best people to compete in fierce international markets. The UK should be seen as modern, open and inclusive to invite further investment.”

Some on the Government Benches will disagree about the terms on which we conclude Brexit, but we can agree, based on figures already cited, that UK research is enormously influential around the world. What was missing from the discussion before 23 June was just how important EU research funding is in supporting the UK’s research and how much that funding is at risk at the moment. It is about not only money, but uniform regulations, which should not be overlooked in future negotiations and agreements.

Advances in research and the consequent benefits to society and the economy could not be realised simply by having the same level of funding go through a UK funding body. Loughborough University tells me that urgent action is required to guarantee UK participation in EU research networks post-Brexit, including continuing to contribute to funding of EU research programmes initiated during the two years after invoking article 50. We will all have anecdotes about research bids in which the UK has been dropped completely as a participant or co-ordinator due to the referendum, but I know of at least one case in which the UK institution was invited back into the project following the Treasury statement in August on underwriting UK participation, which demonstrates how important that announcement was and how important continuing announcements in the same vein will be. I welcome the Chancellor having given that commitment. We have already heard demands that the UK have associated country status in Horizon 2020—third country status would be much less satisfactory.

A non-university example is Medilink East Midlands, which has supported over 1,000 companies in the development of innovations through the European regional development fund project that it ran between 2008 and 2015. It has three new ERDF projects that will continue that support for the next couple of years, and it is worth noting that ERDF has been the only source of funding for business and innovation projects available to them since 2010. Over the past seven years, Medilink EM has delivered an intensive programme of innovation support to the east midlands life sciences sector. In addition to supporting over 1,000 companies, that has meant producing gross value added of over £8.2 million, creating or safeguarding 480 jobs, and helping over 25 new product launches. As we also heard, however, none of this is possible without talking about people, and this is top of the worry list for those most affected by this debate. We have already heard about how much money international students bring—£11 billion to the UK economy each year— but they also make an important cultural contribution. In 2012-13, 5.5% of students studying in the UK were from EU countries, generating £3.7 billion for the UK economy and sustaining 34,000 jobs in local communities. As a local Member of Parliament representing a large university, I can tell the House that those are not always high-value jobs; we are also talking about the cleaners, cooks and administrators who make a university function, leaving aside the other jobs created locally which rely on the university, such as those in retail and leisure. I echo the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) that students should not be taken into account in net migration numbers. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement at last week’s EU Council meeting that she wants an early deal on the rights of EU citizens, and I shall continue to push Ministers to honour that.

In the short time available, I just wish to say that by 2019 we are going to have new immigration and trading policies, and we look forward to a new industrial strategy, and we must have a new relationship that enables our institutions to take part in EU funding for science and research.

To view the full debate, please click here.

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