A time for boldness: EU membership and UK science after the referendum Contents

Chapter 4: Facilities, research infrastructure and regulation

Facilities and research infrastructure

70.The arrangements for funding and participation in European research infrastructure (RIs) are set out in pages 52–58 of the Committee’s EU membership and UK science report.65 EU membership is not a requirement for participation in most shared European RIs. The European Commission facilitates, but does not fund, participation of EU Member States in shared European RIs through the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).

71.As we observed in our April report, “Wide access to many RIs is available to non-EU Member States as well as to countries outside Europe”.66 EU membership may nonetheless play a role in decisions on where to locate facilities. In written evidence to the Committee’s EU membership and UK science inquiry, the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) stated:

“EMBL-EBI would not have been able to participate so fully, or even at all, in these infrastructure projects were the UK not an EU member, and EMBL-EBI’s selection as the hub for ELIXIR [European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information] would certainly have been in question were the UK not part of the EU.”67

72.The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s written evidence (to our earlier inquiry) on the Joint European Torus (JET) nuclear fusion facility in Oxfordshire and its contribution to the larger ITER facility being built in France stated:

“EU funding and collaboration is essential to sustain the world leading capability of Culham and to position the UK in the technologies of the future fusion (and fission) economy.”68

73.In a document setting out its priorities post-Brexit, the Russell Group said: “We are particularly concerned about the long-term future of the six Pan-European Research Infrastructures headquartered in the UK69 which support numerous high quality jobs and represent an important part of the UK research capacity.”70 Other major research establishments are also established in the UK including the European Space Agency and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

74.We put it to Jo Johnson MP that Brexit presents an opportunity for the UK to take bold actions to establish itself assertively in the global science community, including UN agencies. We suggested that the UK might, for example, host a major new international research facility to demonstrate to the international science community that the UK is one of the most attractive places in the world to pursue a scientific career and to invest in top quality science.

75.In reply, the Minister told us that Brexit:

“… gives us an opportunity to … position ourselves for the future as a country that is determined to stay at the cutting edge of science. We are already host to a number of important research facilities and we are continuing to develop our networks … We continue to analyse all the opportunities to make more such commitments when they present good value for money.”71

76.We urge the Government to consult the science community in the short- and medium-term to identify opportunities for bold long-term moves to reinforce the UK’s global standing in science. This could include the UK offering to host, in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries, one or more new international research facilities on the scale of the Diamond Light Source72 in Harwell or the Francis Crick Institute73 in London, together with existing and new networks. We expect that all such moves should be subject to the rigorous review and value for money appraisals that apply to existing research funding.

Expanding international collaboration

77.We cannot, at this stage, anticipate the outcome of Brexit negotiations on science. Against that background, UK scientific leaders should try not to be consumed entirely with UK-EU negotiations and should make space for discussions with the rest of the world—particularly where there is potential to build on an existing track record. The UK-US axis on science stands out as an opportunity worth exploring.

78.Professor Steven Cowley, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, told us:

“2017 is an opportune time on both sides of the Atlantic to grow and enhance the formal science and technological links between the UK and the US. Informal connections are already strong. … However, compared to the current UK-EU axis, there are few formal UK-US collaborative research programmes or joint research institutes.

Given the success of EU collaborative research programmes and institutes, it is clear such research structures are effective. It would thus be prudent to explore the possibility of UK-US joint programmes and institutes.”74

79.The Government is already making clear efforts to build trade relationships around the world: it should pursue similar activities in the scientific domain, exploring collaborations and shared protocols with Governments and funding agencies in major scientific nations, particularly where existing relationships are already strong.


80.Several regulatory issues were addressed in our April report. Whilst we did not mention regulation in the document launching this follow up investigation, we received helpful evidence on important regulatory topics. A full assessment of the regulatory dimension of Brexit is beyond the scope of this follow-on inquiry, but we highlight specific points from the evidence we received.

The Great Repeal Bill

81.On 2 October, in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would introduce a Great Repeal Bill.75 The aim of that legislation will be to end the authority of EU law by converting all its provisions into British law. It will also repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which gives primacy and direct effect to all EU law.76

Is there a scientific dimension to the Great Repeal Bill?

82.The UK’s withdrawal from the EU offers an opportunity to review existing regulation. It may be determined that certain aspects of EU regulation are inappropriate post-Brexit, or that in specific cases the benefits to R&D of UK regulations, tailored to this country’s own needs, would outweigh the disadvantage of losing regulatory harmonisation under EU arrangements.

83.Most submissions called for the generality of UK regulations in the scientific domain to remain harmonised with those of the EU after Brexit. Dr Vallance said “simple harmonised regulation is important for us, so having to make multiple different regulatory submissions adds a burden and adds complexity, so in general we look for harmonisation and, therefore, a retreat from that, if that is what happens with the EU, would be undesirable”.77 Cancer Research UK made the point that, “UK standards and legislation governing the approval and conduct of research must be compatible with the EU to enable our continued participation in pan-EU research projects.”78

84.However, whilst stressing that leaving the EU presents complex challenges for the future of regulation, standards and legislation, CaSE said that:

“This is also an area where leaving the EU could provide real opportunities to create a distinctive, attractive environment for research and innovation in the UK. However, this is balanced by the need to first and foremost ensure continued alignment and compatibility with EU regulatory frameworks to support cross-border collaboration, participation in programmes and trade.”79

85.CaSE also suggested that, “Leaving the EU could provide an opportunity for the UK to become a regulatory ‘sandbox’; a place for trying new approaches.”80

86.Professor Burnell told us that Brexit offered a possible opportunity to simplify regulation:

“If we wish to trade with Europe we are going to have to largely abide by the European regulatory system, but if some of that proved too onerous—and perhaps the GMO regulation in Europe is a bit ponderous—we could say, “Stuff that”, and trade in GMOs with elsewhere in the world. We might be able to opt out of some of the regulatory stuff if we are more independent.”81

87.Mr James Lawford Davies, solicitor and partner at Hempsons, pointed to the cost and complexity of administering distinctive UK regulatory arrangements for our life science sector if the UK diverges from EU standards because:

“… much of the regulatory landscape is constantly changing and evolving in light of new developments in science and medicine … Unless the UK agrees to maintain continuity and involvement with existing and forthcoming EU processes and systems, it will have to establish its own infrastructures to mirror those of the EU, creating a significant burden and expense with no additional benefit to the UK. An active and proactive form of regulatory cooperation between the UK and EU is therefore vital”.82

88.It is unlikely that the concerns relating to the cost and complexity of administering distinctive UK regulatory arrangements for the life science sector if the UK diverges from EU standards identified by Mr Lawford Davies are confined to the medical and life sciences. We are unaware of any analysis of the costs and benefits within the science domain of any regulatory reforms which may appear as a consequence of the Great Repeal Bill.

89.We recommend that the Government should assess in the short term the administrative structures and scientific advice required to support the regulatory responsibilities in the scientific domain that will transfer from the EU to the UK following the Great Repeal Bill. That assessment should include, but not be limited to, the scientific dimensions of medical, agricultural, energy, environmental, transport and telecommunications regulation.

90.We urge the Minister to publish the results of this assessment before the Great Repeal Bill is enacted.

Scientific advice during the Brexit process

91.CaSE told us that “appropriate structures and processes should be put in place by the UK government and parliament to ensure scientific and technical expertise and advice is appropriately accessed throughout the [Brexit] process”.83 Professor John Womersley, then Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Chair of the ESFRI, said that within BEIS great effort must be devoted to “understanding some of the legal issues around the future position of science and innovation in a post-Brexit world, and making sure those are fed into the Departments for Exiting the EU, for International Trade and so forth, wherever negotiations are led”.84

92.We asked Jo Johnson MP whether scientific advice would be fed in during the course of the Brexit negotiations. He said that he was working closely with colleagues across Government to ensure that “the science and research community’s voice and interests are properly represented in the Government’s overview and understanding of where our national interest lies in these negotiations”.85 He also confirmed that the network of chief scientists across the various departments, led by Sir Mark Walport, were “providing very helpful input into this process”.86

93.The Government must ensure that it has appropriate scientific advice during the Brexit negotiations. We share the disappointment voiced by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in its report Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research87 that the Department for Exiting the European Union is not currently progressing with appointing a departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA).

94.The voice of the scientific community should be heard alongside the voice of business during the Brexit negotiations and in making future alliances. We urge the Government in the short term to assess the need for a Chief Scientific Adviser in the Department for International Trade, bearing in mind the scale of scientific analysis that underpins international trade regulations and may be required for trade negotiations.

65 Science and Technology Committee, EU membership and UK science (2nd Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 127)

66 Science and Technology Committee, EU membership and UK science (2nd Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 127), para 177

67 Written evidence from the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) (EUM0038)

68 Written evidence from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (EUM0024)

69 These are HIPER—High Power Laser Energy Research Facility (Harwell); ELIXIR—European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information (Hinxton); INSTRUCT—Integrated Structural Biology Infrastructure (Oxford); ISBE—Infrastructure for Systems Biology-Europe (Imperial College London); SKA—Square Kilometre Array (Manchester, Jodrell Bank); and ESS ERIC—European Social Survey (London, City University).

70 Nottingham University, Russell Group priorities after Brexit (4 July 2016): https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/about/documents/eu/russell-group-briefing-eu-referendum-july-2016.pdf [accessed 9 November 2016]

71 Q 45 (Jo Johnson MP)

72 Diamond Light Source: http://www.diamond.ac.uk/Home.html

73 The Francis Crick Institute: https://www.crick.ac.uk/

74 Written evidence from Prof Steven Cowley (EUF0019)

75 ‘Brexit: Theresa May to trigger Article 50 by end of March’, BBC News (2 October 2016): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37532364 [accessed 9 November 2016]

76 ‘Theresa May’s ‘great repeal bill’: what’s going to happen and when?’, The Guardian (2 October 2016): https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/02/theresa-may-great-repeal-bill-eu-british-law [accessed 9 November 2016]

77 Q 21 (Dr Patrick Vallance)

78 Written evidence from Cancer Research UK (EUF0003)

79 Written evidence from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) (EUF0005)

80 Written evidence from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) (EUF0005)

81 Q 2 (Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell)

82 Written evidence from Mr James Lawford Davies (EUF0017)

83 Written evidence from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) (EUF0005)

84 Q 39 (Prof John Womersley)

85 Q 52 (Jo Johnson MP)

86 Q 53 (Jo Johnson MP)

87 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research (Seventh Report, Session 2016–17, HC 502)

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