Press release 20/12/2016
Scientists for EU respond to House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report, A time for boldness: EU membership and UK science after the referendum
The House of Lords Science and Technology committee have done their best to create a report of opportunities for British science in Brexit Britain. This has been made difficult, by their own admission, because the vast majority of responses from the community offered very few positives from Brexit. For this reason, the Lords decided to make “a number of recommendations which were not specifically suggested to us in evidence.” A sign of the times, maybe, that they resort to offer their own beliefs as substitute for wider community suggestion.
Despite the claim that this is “a time for boldness”, the report fails to inspire. It praises the government’s recent spending increase for R&D (up to 1.7-1.8% GDP in 5 years’ time) without acknowledging that the UK will still fall well short of the internationally competitive 3% GDP target pushed by the CBI, BIS, EU, S&T Commons report and various science pressure groups. The House of Commons S&T Committee was much stronger in their recent report on this and other issues such as full & immediate protection of all EU researchers in the UK.
The report acknowledges that Switzerland’s attempts at restricting migration distanced it greatly from EU science programmes but doesn’t see the problematic link between Theresa May’s ‘red line’ on immigration control and access to those same programmes. Instead, the report naively chimes to the Leave campaigners’ erstwhile rhetoric in suggesting the UK will be able to have ‘an agreement’ with EU science because other countries outside the EU do. But ‘an agreement’ could take many shapes – none of which were discussed or analysed. There is a painful dearth of intellectual exploration into this very fundamental and complex aspect of our upcoming negotiation with EU science.
We strongly support the report’s calls for removal of international students from immigration targets. International students funnel a great deal of money into our economy (Sheffield University estimates their 8200 students add £130 million to the local economy each year) and take very little out from public services. Polls regularly show this change to the official statistics to be a popular.
There is little hope for change though as the Committee joins a long list that includes the Treasury, George Osborne, BIS, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Vince Cable and David Willetts – all of whom have called for the same but been rebuffed by Theresa May in her irrational stubbornness on this issue.
The report is correct to note the long-standing appetite of the UK public for increased immigration of scientific researchers despite the wider anti-immigration mood. The Government must respond.
Impact of Brexit
The Lords report bizarrely refers to cases of impact so far as being “anecdotal” rather than “documented”. We ourselves provisioned this inquiry with an anonymised summary of our database of 438 testimonies in which we confidentially also log full name, email, job and institutional records. Therefore, they are indeed fully documented. Dozens of these have been verified in detail – as the individuals were willing to talk with media and so we passed them onto BBC, Independent, Financial Times, Buzzfeed, and many others. We have not encountered one record to be false. Yet the Lords report insists all cases of impact are merely ‘anecdotal’, implying rumour. This is misleading and dismissive of hard evidence in their hands.
More science advice in Brexit
During the hearings it became apparent that the Brexit Ministries had not yet appointed Science Advisers. Jo Johnson said this was underway and the committee has called for this to be finalised as soon as possible.
Given the sidelining of experts, the prominence of climate-change skepticism within the Brexit campaign groups and the general atmosphere among the science and tech communities of the UK since the referendum; appointing science advisors at the heart of trade and Brexit deliberations would be a reassuring step.
Opportunities with Rest of World
It is becoming cliché to see collaboration with the US held up as an ‘opportunity’ from Brexit. EU membership has never restricted our ability to build such a relationship. The evidence suggests the EU actually enhances our ability to build collaborations with non-EU countries. Given our ‘special relationship’ with the US and the lack of restrictions on developing that relationship, we are already well-linked. Whether this requires further bilateral support is subsumed within the wider appraisal of national science needs as appropriately determined. Specifically, we should continue to facilitate global collaborations, based primarily upon the feedback from our own science community rather than political-level fad.
We greatly appreciate the committee acknowledging that scientists and the STEM community wish to retain a great deal of compatibility with EU regulations, licensing and standards. While some trade ministers talk about slashing ‘red tape’ through the Great Repeal Bill, researchers and tech entrepreneurs want to be able to move workers, knowledge and products across a simpler, harmonized regulatory field. Re-inventing our own wheel to spin alongside the regulation development of the EU will bring its own costs and burdens that could well be greater than the opportunities.
The suggestion that we could deregulate contentious areas such as GMOs has some merit but may be seen as a race to the bottom by the science community, our public and our European neighbours. The EU has been slow on some issues because of democratic opposition. GMOs and stem-cells will be harder to push past citizen-led opposition than post-Brexit decisions on HS2, Hinckley and Heathrow.
“This report has a little more detail than recent platitudes about red, white and blue government but it clearly takes a lot from Brexit-means-Brexit. We’ll be positive when the community isn’t and we’ll claim to be bold when we have little to say” – Dr Rob Davidson, Co-founder, Scientists for EU
“This report came out after the S&T Commons report, but is less inspiring. The Commons report should be taken as the potent medicine we need, with this current text providing a few additional, but not deeply-explored, ideas.” – Dr Mike Galsworthy, Co-founder, Scientists for EU
For further information, please contact Dr Mike Galsworthy, Programme Director of Scientists for EU on: firstname.lastname@example.org