Brexit, science and innovation Contents

3The urgent need for action

34.A recurring theme arising from our summit and the written evidence we received was the need for urgency in tackling many of the issues raised in this report (and others not set out in detail here). In practice, there was a significant overlap in the themes identified by our predecessor Committee and those highlighted to us in written evidence and at our summit, but with an added emphasis on the need for timely action. For instance, Andrew Mackenzie, representing the Physiological Society warned us that:

A lot of the time the rhetoric from some of the politicians is around, “This is a problem that we will deal with when the final solution is arrived at post-Brexit and it will all be fine”. The reality is that the uncertainty is causing problems right now today, and our members tell us that people are not taking up job offers now.67

Naomi Weir, representing the Campaign for Science and Engineering, made a similar plea for timely action on immigration and visa policies:

On timings, this is urgent. Messaging and domestic [immigration/visa] policies must be and can be unilaterally changed. These must happen soon because the messages are being watched by an international audience and we cannot afford to continue in the way we have been so far.68

35.Professor Michael Arthur, representing the Russell Group EU Working Group, provided a striking insight into the effects of uncertainty over future immigration policy that UCL had begun to see, providing further evidence of the need for urgency:

We advertise a series of excellence fellowships, mainly in biomedical sciences. Each year we usually have over 100 applicants. On average, we would expect 30% or so of those applicants to be from other European institutions. This year we dropped from 30% to zero applications, something that quite shocked me.69

Similarly, the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations (AIRTO) told us that there were already measurable effects on recruitment of EU citizens:

AIRTO members are seeing their permanent EU employees resigning and returning to their home country or to other EU countries. This is occurring at a slightly higher level than observed prior to the referendum vote in 2016, but it is compounded by a significant drop in applications from non-UK EU nationals for permanent employment vacancies, which as a consequence are becoming harder to fill.70

36.On the issue of urgency in relation to funding, the University of Bristol told us that “uncertainty around FP9 participation continues, and therefore a push for an agreement which includes provision for full access to FP9 as an Associated Country should be prioritised in the next phases of the negotiations”.71

37.Professor Alistair Buchan, representing the University of Oxford at our summit, believed that science should have the same profile as the issue of the Northern Ireland border in terms of its significance to the Brexit discussions:

We need a strategy and one with intent. We need to make sure that we become an Irish/Northern Ireland border problem. We need to explain that the infrastructure, the networking, going backwards and forwards across Europe, is exactly the same as how Ireland has worked since the Good Friday accord. We need the research collaboration in Europe to be crystallised as a need for Government to address in the same way that the border is addressed, with a tight deadline.72

38.There is a wide range of organisations that the Government will need to interact with in order to secure such a comprehensive science and innovation agreement, and the scale of the task should not be underestimated. The main agencies and regulatory bodies are summarised in Annex B.

39.Given the risk of an extended period of uncertainty, we asked the Science Minister whether the Government was acting with sufficient urgency to negotiate such a ‘pact’. He told us that:

Having spoken to my counterparts in the EU—a lot of EU Science Ministers—we all take the view that science is one area that is a win-win for us and them. If it were left to me alone, as the Science Minister, this would be one area on which we could come to an agreement very early in the process, but it is part of a much bigger negotiation […] notwithstanding that, there is a sense of urgency on the part of the Government.73

Nevertheless, he added that:

The timescale will be driven by cross-Government decisions, rather than what I specifically want […] It is not how quickly we can land a deal and also not just a unilateral decision. The Commission also has to want to do a deal in the terms that we want.74

40.Producing an early agreement on science and innovation would set a positive tone for the rest of the Brexit negotiations, and should be a clear ‘win-win’ for both the UK and the EU. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to agreeing “a far-reaching science and innovation pact”, but we are concerned that delays in agreeing this will undermine the UK’s current position as a science superpower. 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 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 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. Our report sets out the key issues that such an agreement should cover.

67 Transcript of the Science and Technology Committee Summit on 22 February 2018 (BSI 85) p27

68 Transcript of the Science and Technology Committee Summit on 22 February 2018 (BSI 85) p14

69 Transcript of the Science and Technology Committee Summit on 22 February 2018 (BSI 85) p26

70 AIRTO (BSI 45) p2

71 University of Bristol (BSI 50) para 3.3

72 Transcript of the Science and Technology Committee Summit on 22 February 2018 (BSI 85) p71

73 Qq4–5

74 Q19

Published: 21 March 2018