Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research Contents

3Securing the best outcome for science and research from the Brexit process

What matters most to science and research?

27.It was clear from the written evidence we received that the science community’s hopes and fears for the future revolve around five key issues:

Further detail on each of these issues is included in the Annex to this report, providing an agenda which the Government can use to explore them in greater depth.

28.We also heard that many of the priority issues for the science community are interlinked. As Professor Ian Diamond Chair of the Universities UK Policy Network, explained:

there is no point having a regulatory framework if you do not have the talent; there is no point having the talent if you do not have access to the grants.47

The Campaign for Science and Engineering wrote that “part of ensuring that the UK is a destination of choice for scientists of all nationalities (including British nationals) to build a career is to ensure this is a place where they can participate in the best science. Access and retention of talent therefore cannot be divorced from access to funding, regulation and ability to collaborate with the rest of the world, including Europe”.48 Kevin Baughan, Chief Development Officer at Innovate UK, told us:

We cannot really look at each of those parts individually. We need a strategy and a plan that allows us to move the whole ecosystem forward, because together they take worldclass science and turn it into jobs and growth; and together they allow businesses to export, to compete in wider markets and to build broader partnerships.49

29.The Government will need to address all of the priority issues for the science community listed in this report—funding, people, collaboration, regulation and facilities—as a coherent whole rather than a list of separate considerations.


30.Witnesses emphasised the importance of people in the context of science and research, in particular the future mobility of researchers and the uncertainty faced by those already in the UK.

Movement of researchers

31.Our counterparts in the House of Lords concluded before the Referendum that researcher mobility was “of critical importance to the UK science community, including academia, business and charities”, and that “researcher mobility must be protected if UK science and research is to remain world-leading”.50 Similarly, the Francis Crick Institute told us that international scientific talent was “the lifeblood” of the Institute, and was typical of many of our written submissions when they emphasised that “high quality science needs the very best minds, both from the UK and around the world […] We must be able to recruit and retain the very best scientists, whatever country they come from”.51

32.Professor Philip Nelson of Research Councils UK told us that “the biggest risks to the research base in the UK are around the people involved”.52 We received written examples of researchers considering rejecting UK job offers and citing the Referendum result as the reason.53 Dr Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) effectively summarised much of our evidence:

It is not really a question of us allowing talented scientists and engineers to come here; it is about us fighting for them to come here. There is an international competitive market for these fantastically talented people […] The UK Government can make a great contribution by stating extremely clearly, one, what its priority is for the place of science in our future, whether it wants the UK to remain a scientific superpower, for it to lead on its scientific strength and heritage, and, two, how it feels about the people that it wants to come here, because all of those wonderful achievements that we can all cite about the UK are done by people from a range of nationalities in this country. UK science is not done by UK nationals. It is done by many people.54

33.It remains to be seen whether the Government will seek to apply existing controls on non-EU citizens to EU citizens or to introduce a new system, and the extent to which any controls include a ‘points-based’ or ‘employer-led selection’ system. Other countries have developed immigration systems which have to varying degrees adopted—like the UK—a hybrid mix of such approaches, including Australia and Canada which had been the focus of debate in the Referendum.55 In September, the Prime Minister was reported as casting doubt on the scope for a points-based system when she said that “What the British people voted for on 23 June was to bring some control into the movement of people from the European Union to the UK: A points-based system does not give you that control.”56

34.Dr Main from CaSE called for the dialogue on migration to become more “nuanced”, arguing that “it would be a mistake to interpret the leave vote as a blanket mandate to reduce immigration. There is nuance—and it needs to be drawn out in the public dialogue—by occupation and by contributions to the economy”. Professor Angus Dalgleish from Scientists for Britain made a similar point:

There is a massive difference between the freedom of movement of people and the freedom of movement of skilled labour. […] The freedom of movement of people is not on; it is freedom of skilled labour that we want to maintain.

This is reflected in post-referendum polling conducted for the think tank British Future, which found that:

Only 12% of people, for instance, would like to see a reduction in the numbers of skilled workers coming to Britain; nearly four times as many people (46%) would like to see more of it, with 42% saying that it should stay the same. Among people who voted Leave in the referendum these numbers remain broadly the same: 45% would like to see an increase, just 15% a reduction and 40% say that the numbers should stay as they are.

The same is true of international students coming to study at Britain’s universities, who made up over a quarter of immigration flows to the UK last year. Only a fifth of people (22%) would like these numbers to be reduced, less than the 24% who would be happy for them to go up. The majority (54%, including 50% of Leave voters) would rather the numbers stayed the same.57

35.Professor Dalgleish argued that controls on immigration and attracting research talent were not mutually exclusive, citing Canada and Australia as examples of countries that “operate very strict point limitations” but “do not have any trouble attracting the best scientists in the world to them”. Scientists for Britain later wrote that

science is now so globalised that borders are less of a barrier to talented researchers wishing to live, work and collaborate with colleagues around the world, and as such, we would argue that UK science would still be able to excel in the event that ‘the single market and associated free movement’ is not the outcome of exit negotiations. We would, however, urge our own government to recognise the importance or researcher mobility to science, and recommend that any future arrangements should ensure that scientists and students from around the world are still encouraged to visit, study and work in the UK.58

36.Given that there was such agreement on this between groups who campaigned previously on opposite sides of the referendum debate, we asked Robin Walker whether the Government could commit to ensuring appropriate researcher mobility. He told us that:

We want to create an immigration system that allows us to exert control, which people have asked for, over the overall numbers, but also to encourage the brightest and the best to come here […] Our job is to conduct the negotiations in a way that gives the UK the powers to control the system going forward, but within that we absolutely recognise the need to continue to attract talent and the value that people in the research community bring to our country”.59

37.We understand that the Government is not yet able to offer firmer guarantees regarding future immigration rules for researchers but remind them that this is essential in order to continue to attract top-quality researchers to the UK. We recognise that planning for exit negotiations is still underway, but there is clear agreement that researcher mobility is a crucial component of the UK’s successful research and science sector. The issue should be treated separately from discussions about immigration control more broadly, with firm commitments provided as soon as possible.

Certainty for existing EU research staff

38.A common theme in our evidence was that reassurances to EU researchers already working in the UK would be needed in order to avoid a ‘brain drain’. We received submissions from individual researchers who told us they were “seriously considering” leaving the UK,60 and a group of postdoctoral researchers told us that 18% of them were now actively seeking jobs in other countries.61 Professor Ottoline Leyser, representing the Royal Society, noted that there were 31,000 nonUK EU citizens working in research in academia in the UK, and believed that “those people are all feeling very anxious and unwelcome”:

There has been a lot of discussion about nonUK EU nationals currently working in the UK and what guarantees can be provided to them. […] I think it is absolutely not the way we should be proceeding—to use people’s lives as bargaining chips in a broader political landscape. I do not think that is a constructive way to arrive at a negotiation table either.62

39.The Prime Minister wrote to Sir Paul Nurse following the Referendum acknowledging that:

Our research base is enriched by the best minds from Europe and around the world—providing reassurance to these individuals and to UK researchers working in Europe will be a priority for the Government.63

40.The Government should deliver on the Prime Minister’s early reassurance to EU researchers currently working in the UK, that certainty for them will be a Government priority, by making an immediate commitment to exempt them from Brexit negotiations on any reciprocal immigration controls for workers already in post.

The scope for a bespoke model

41.The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s report in April explained that a several pre-existing Brexit ‘models’ exist, some of which allow non-EU members to continue to benefit from EU funding streams.64 These models are based on the precedents that other countries have established. The models have differing requirements in relation to free movement, access to markets, the ability to influence EU science programmes and to benefit from their funding—existing models involve some trade-off between such benefits and a range of rights and obligations.

42.Switzerland is an example of a country that is not a Member State, nor a member of the European Economic Area; it is, however, an Associated Country and a participant in the single market. Switzerland participates in the EU’s fundamental principle of freedom of movement via a bilateral agreement. However, while Switzerland currently participates in Horizon 2020, it will lose its current membership from 2017 unless it resolves a disagreement with the EU over freedom of movement, arising from a referendum vote to limit immigration and prioritise Swiss nationals for jobs. Given this history and ongoing negotiations, we asked Professor Martin Vetterli, President of the National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation, if there were any pitfalls that the UK science community and its negotiators should be aware of when seeking a good deal for science. He warned that:

At least the Swiss tried to avoid the sin of arrogance. Even though Swiss science is very good, that is not how we went to Brussels.

43.Professor Dalgleish from Scientists for Britain was confident that the UK could develop its own model:

There are three or four models, and one of them people can fit into and have all the same privileges as everybody else without being a member of the European Union. I personally think that Britain and its science is so big that it will probably warrant its own model in that regard. […] The UK is far too important to fit into an ordinary model […] we should basically be able to craft our own model, because, as is rightly said, we are the leaders.65

44.Professor Ian Diamond also argued that the UK needed “an enhanced model to those that exist at the moment”. He suggested that an arrangement on more favourable terms than Norway (an Associated Country) could be achieved given the significance of UK science to Europe:

I am not completely convinced that European science would have the vision, the drive and the imagination without Britain at the table […] it is incredibly important that we maintain a model that enables us to be able to influence as well as to receive […] We certainly need a model that is similar to those of the associate countries at the moment, but, in addition, I believe very strongly that we need to make sure that we have some influence over the future direction of European science.66

45.Jo Johnson told us in July that it was too early for the Government to set out which model it wanted to pursue:

It would be premature for me to alight on a particular structure, because we are at an early stage today. […] Obviously, science is an extremely important national interest but there are many others that will be taken into account in determining our answers to these questions. There is a spectrum of relationships in the Horizon 2020 programme […] We are a very big science power, we are a very big economy, but it is not for me now to define before this Committee what our eventual negotiating position might be, because it is going to take us some time to get to that answer.67


46.Jo Johnson emphasised that the development of the Government’s post-Brexit industrial strategy provided fresh opportunities for science:

The Industrial Strategy presents an enormous opportunity for science and innovation in this country. We are very clear that we want science and innovation to be at the very heart of industrial strategy, as a means for us to improve our economic performance and make this a country that works for everyone.68

47.Our written evidence highlighted other particular areas of opportunity where the Government might seek to maximise the benefits for science and research that leaving the EU could bring. We discuss these below. Others were discussed in the ‘risk assessment’ submissions we received.69

Revising VAT rules to stimulate university-business collaboration

48.The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) drew our attention to an opportunity to support business-university research collaboration through a change to VAT rules, as recommended by the Dowling Review.70 CaSE explained that:

The primary issue is that publicly-funded research institutes are restricted to 5% commercial activity if they opt not to pay VAT or face costly tax bills to co-locate their researchers with industry colleagues.71

We heard from UCL that “previous explanations for this state of affairs have been the requirements to comply with EU legislation […] The UK’s withdrawal from the EU therefore poses an important opportunity for the Government to address this issue […] The Government could also consider introducing additional incentives to actively promote university-business co-location”.72

Regulatory reform

49.Several witness highlighted the opportunity for the UK to “create a distinctive, attractive environment for research and innovation”73 and become “a global leader in scientific regulation”.74 UCL also suggested that discussion on how regulation could be changed to enable scientific progress “could be conducted in such a way to make the UK an exemplar for public dialogue and engagement with science”.75

50.In our EU regulation of the life sciences report, we noted that there were areas where the EU should improve the regulation system, including “its complexity and cost, its timeliness, its application of the precautionary principle and its consistency”. We highlighted the particular examples of GM and clinical trials regulation. Nevertheless, we were also reminded in that inquiry that there was a need to balance the opportunity for reform with the benefits that consistency in regulation bring. As we concluded previously:

By harmonising the procedures under which research is conducted, EU regulation can foster crossborder collaborations. These multiple state collaborations are evident at least in the conduct of clinical trials, for example, and setting up such trials through a system where permission needed to be sought country by country would likely introduce even more delay and bureaucracy than the current EU system.76

51.In our current inquiry, Stuart Pritchard from the Wellcome Trust highlighted the issue of EU regulations beyond the life sciences that are in the process of being implemented, and that there was a risk of “legislative limbo”:

The data protection regulation […] is not currently on the statute in the UK. It is in the process of being transposed. If we were to have a different set of regulations from those in the EU, it may well prevent us being able to participate in largescale health data research projects, for example, and that would extremely limit the work that the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire does as the largest genomics institute in Europe. […] In terms of EU regulation, it is very much a scalpel rather than a sword that we need to have, in terms of unpicking where the UK should retain EU regulation and where there might be the need for change. One key area is what happens to things that are to some extent in legislative limbo. We could add to that, for example, the clinical trials regulation, which is not yet fully transposed.77

52.The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) also highlighted that European State Aid legislation currently limits the Government’s ability to invest in the private sector, and that opportunities would arise after Brexit:

There would then be scope for the UK government to look to tailor R&D schemes to benefit target sectors of the UK economy more effectively. There might also be benefit to universities, other public sector organisations and companies in easing the current EU procurement rules.78


53.Several of the risk assessment submissions we received highlighted the scope for creating a new visa regime that prioritised researchers at all career levels. Dr Sarah Main also noted that improvements could be made to visa processes for short research visits as part of a wider review:

The visa systems that are in place for short research visits can be quite burdensome […] It will be important, when we get down the line, in terms of process and operating a new migration system, that we recognise that science is a mobile endeavour and that accessing research facilities in the EU will require quite a lot of short visits. Looking at the visa system to allow it to cope with a much larger number of people wanting permission for short-term travel will be important.79

41 Scientists for EU (LEA 261)

42 Royal Academy of Engineering (LEA 279) para 2.7. Some information by discipline was provided by Research Councils UK (LEA 235) Annex 1

43 See for instance Universities UK (LEA 275), Russell Group (LEA 180) para 3.6, Loughborough University (LEA 109) para 2.4

44 Royal Society (LEA 177) para 3

45 Association of Medical Research Charities (LEA 228). See also our report on EU regulation of the life sciences (footnote 2).

46 Q206 [Gareth Davies]

47 Q6

48 Campaign for Science and Engineering (LEA 267)

49 Q86

50 House of Lords, EU membership and UK science, Second report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 127, para 171

51 Francis Crick Institute (LEA 146) para 2.3

52 Q84

53 See for instance Professor Jonathan Bamber (LEA 41)

54 Q39

55 The UK’s points-based system for immigration, Briefing paper 7662, House of Commons Library, July 2016

56No 10 rules out points-based immigration system for Britain, The Guardian, 5 September 2016

58 Scientists for Britain (LEA 89)

59 Q181

60 Professor David Dobson (LEA 29); see also Professor Frank Krauss (LEA 23), Professor Carlton Baugh (LEA 6)

61 UCL Institute of Neurology Postdoc Committee (LEA 28)

62 Q79

64 House of Lords, EU membership and UK science, Second report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 127, para 225–235

65 Q9

66 Q8

67 Q134

68 Q188

69 See for instance UCL (LEA 258), the Association of Medical Research Charities (LEA 228), the University of Bristol (LEA 210)

70 Professor Dame Anne Dowling, The Dowling Review of business-university research collaborations, July 2015, para 78

71 Campaign for Science and Engineering (LEA 267)

72 UCL (LEA 258) para 49–51. See also Cancer Research UK (LEA 224)

73 Campaign for Science and Engineering (LEA 267)

74 UCL (LEA 258) para 52

75 UCL (LEA 258) para 53

76 Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, EU regulation of the life sciences, HC 158, para 17

77 Q70

78 HEFCE (LEA 230) para C

79 Q16

17 November 2016