Brexit: Impact on Universities and Scientific Research

Brexit: Impact on Universities and Scientific Research – 3rd November 2016

Moved by Lord Soley

That this House takes note of the potential impact of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on funding for universities and scientific research.

Lord Bilimoria (CB)

My Lords, when I visited CERN in Geneva, I realised that the experiments that led to the famous Higgs boson discovery, ATLAS and CMS, were both headed by British scientists: Professor Dave Charlton from the University of Birmingham, and Professor Sir Tejinder Virdee from Imperial College. And of course it was Sir Tim Berners-Lee who actually created the world wide web at CERN. Then, this year, we had the gravitational waves proving Einstein’s theory of relativity, 100 years later, with 1.3 billion light years being measured. Who were two of the principal scientists behind that? Professor Alberto Vecchio and Professor Andreas Frieze—EU scientists at the University of Birmingham. What makes this country great—this 1% of the world’s population, as my noble friend Lord Kakkar said—is not our natural resources but our talent. The jewel in our crown is our universities, which are the best in the world, along with those in the United States of America.

I declare my various interests, including being the proud chancellor of the University of Birmingham, chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School and the president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, representing the 450,000 international students in this country, of whom 180,000 are from the EU.

I say that we achieve all this excellence in spite of underspending on HE. We spend way below the EU and OECD average, and we are well behind the United States of America. When it comes to our research and development spending as a proportion of GDP, South Korea spends double the percentage that we do and we are way below the EU average, let alone that of the United States. What is scary is that the proportion of GDP spent on R&D, 1.6%, has been falling from 1985 to 2013. Will the Minister acknowledge this?

We heard from my noble friends Lord Rees and Lord Smith and others that at the University of Cambridge, around 16.5% of university staff are EEA nationals. When it comes to PhD students, that figure is 27%, and for MPhils, it is 21%. Look at the awards: UK institutions have won more ERC awards than any other country—989 compared with France’s 577.

On the implications and opportunities of leaving the EU on science and research, the University of Cambridge’s response is that,

“it will create significant challenges for Universities. We recognise that there is a great deal of uncertainty”.

Everyone has said that today. But the university also said that the political instability raises significant questions in the following areas. It refers to,

“our recruitment and retention of the brightest and best staff and students regardless of nationality … the future of our substantial European research funding”,

and the point that many noble Lords have touched on,

“the extensive global network of the University’s collaborations”.

Sixty percent of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with EU partners. The mobility of our scientists is phenomenal—I have given you just one illustration. Professor Alice Gast of Imperial College, one of the top 10 universities in the world, said:

“Foreigners improve the creativity and productivity of home-grown talent, too”.

They enrich our universities, both academics and students.

Cambridge was the highest recipient of EU funding allocated under Horizon 2020, about which lots of Peers have spoken. I want to ask the Minister about intellectual property. In the event of Brexit—which may not happen, by the way—the value of any EU-based research for exploitation may be limited. Does the Minister agree with that? The UK has played a key role in shaping the design and implementation of the EU’s research programmes to ensure that the funding has been allocated on excellence. That has not been mentioned so far. Legislating for the ERA could have potential negative impacts on our current world-class systems.

People talk about the drop in the number of EU applicants, which is real—will the Minister confirm that? But the other aspect is that as the Royal Society said, the scientific community often works beyond national boundaries on problems of common interest and so is well placed to support diplomatic efforts that require non-traditional alliances of nations, sectors and non-governmental organisations. This is known as science diplomacy.

I conclude by saying that what worries and saddens me about this whole situation is that here we are talking about excellence and Britain being the best in the world, and yet my noble friend Lord Smith spoke about hate crime. I have lived in this country since I came here from India as a 19 year-old student in the early 80s. In 35 years I have never experienced any hate crime except for this year—and this year I have received it in abundance. Whether it is tweets, emails or letters, I cannot even repeat what people have been saying to me. It has saddened me. And yet this is the country that Liam Fox talks about opening up to the world. The world is laughing at us. They see us as closing up to the world, inward looking and insular, not open, not diverse, not plural, not tolerant and not brilliant. The headline of an Indian newspaper would read: Lord Bilimoria—this is not the Britain that I know and this is not the Britain that I love.

Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)

At this, the tail-end of the debate, we have heard so many distinguished and expert speakers that it is a challenge for those of us speaking at this stage to produce any new evidence. However, I would like to add my voice in support of much that has been said. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who brings such energy and enthusiasm in his support for universities.

A further threat which Peter Scott described in his article, and which has been set out by the noble Lords, Lord Smith, and Lord Bilimoria, is that the UK has established itself as a nasty country.

Lord Mendelsohn (Lab)

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, put it well when he talked about our general R&D spend and HE spend compared with our peers. These have always been areas where the genius and great achievements that we have had have made us punch above our weight. We ought to be concerned, in a situation where we are facing difficulties, that we do not over-rely on those assets that we have been able to depend on hitherto.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for securing this debate on the potential impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on funding for universities and scientific research. This is an important topic which is of great interest to the House, as reflected by the number of distinguished Peers contributing today. I shall start by addressing the important and sobering point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Smith, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Mendelsohn, about hate crime. We have been working closely with the police at both the national and the regional level to monitor hate crime since the referendum result. Local forces have the necessary assistance and guidance to respond. On 26 July we published a comprehensive cross-government hate crime action plan which includes education plans. Ministers and officials have met the ambassadors and high commissioners of EU states to offer reassurance.

Thirdly, we must ensure that UK researchers continue to have access to, and leadership of, world-class research facilities. We have access to major research infrastructures across the world, such as the Large Hadron Collider, in which the UK plays a leading role. We are a major partner in building new infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array, whose global headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank—I think the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, raised that point.