The Prime Minister has called for a “far-reaching pact” between the UK and the EU on science and innovation. The issues that such an agreement would need to cover—funding, people, regulation, collaboration—have been clear since our predecessor Committee reported on this in November 2016. Six months ago, the Government published its ‘future partnership’ paper on collaboration on science and innovation, referring to many of these issues, but the document does not contain a great deal of detail. Since then, a range of Ministerial speeches have reaffirmed the importance of ensuring science does not suffer as a result of Brexit. However, clarity over future access to funding, association with regulatory bodies, and immigration policies is required in order to provide certainty.
UK science is entering the Brexit process from a strong starting position. As the Government’s Future Partnership paper notes, the UK is home to four of the world’s top ten universities, and has more Nobel Laureates than any country outside the United States. The UK is second only to Germany in EU project participation, and assurances have been provided about participation in Horizon 2020, the EU’s current flagship research programme. The Government has made science a key pillar of the Industrial Strategy, and has made announcements about EU student places up to 2019. The Government’s £4.7bn increase to the UK’s research and development budget by 2020/21 represents the biggest increase in public R&D investment since 1979, and the Government has made a commitment to increase R&D spending further as a proportion of GDP to 2.4% by 2027.
Co-operation on science and innovation is widely regarded as a ‘win-win’ for both the UK and the EU. Securing an early agreement on science and innovation would set a positive tone for other elements of the negotiations, but the Government needs to act swiftly. It cannot be taken for granted that the UK will retain its status as a science superpower. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to agreeing a science and innovation ‘pact’, but we are concerned that if there were to be a protracted delay in agreeing this, it would have unfortunate effects. Given the significance of science and innovation to the UK economy, reaching an agreement on this should now be as important to the Government as addressing the question of security. It must be stripped out from the wider trade negotiations for focused attention, rather than become a knock-on consequence of other negotiations or be traded against other aspects of a post-Brexit deal. We do not accept that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ in this context. We recommend that the Government make drafting and negotiating a science and innovation agreement an urgent priority.
In particular, it is not sufficient for the Government to wait until September for the Migration Advisory Committee to report before Ministers address the ‘people’ aspects of the UK’s future science and innovation relationship with the EU. The Migration Advisory Committee is due to report in September 2018, but this would result in current uncertainties continuing for another six months. This issue must be resolved as quickly as possible. The Government should ask the Migration Advisory Committee to bring forward its conclusions in relation to the immigration arrangements needed to support science and innovation, and build these into a science and innovation agreement with the EU by October 2018, or earlier if possible.
Since the Referendum, the Government has given assurances to EU students entering UK universities in 2017 and 2018 that they would not see a change in their circumstances. Given that many universities will soon need to start distributing information to potential students about 2019 entrance procedures, it would be helpful if the Government could clarify the status of 2019 applicants as soon as possible
We are concerned that if such a people-centred science and innovation pact is negotiated later it risks being less comprehensive due to other negotiation priorities of the wider post-Brexit trade deal. Furthermore, if a pact is not agreed in late 2018, this will increase risks to retaining and attracting essential talent that our science and innovation sectors need.
The Government has avoided openly committing to negotiating ‘associated country’ status for the EU research and innovation successor programme to Horizon 2020. This uncertainty risks having a direct and imminent impact since, in some areas, funding bids for the successor programme will start to be developed in the coming weeks, and researchers and businesses need to know what the UK’s intentions are.
With just one year remaining until Brexit, and a commonly-accepted aim of reaching a comprehensive Brexit deal by this autumn, the time for setting out broad aspirations has passed. The Government must now work quickly to secure a detailed agreement covering all of the issues important to science and innovation. With sufficient political will these problems can be overcome, but action must be taken now.
Published: 21 March 2018