Lords Science and Technology Committee evidence session addresses Brexit concerns raised by Academy and Campaign

28 October 2016

In an oral evidence session before the Lords Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson was questioned on some of the pressing concerns posed by Brexit for Higher Education, science and research.

The session spoke directly to many of the issues raised by the Academy and Campaign in their statements since the June 23 referendum, specifically on the issue of international research collaboration and funding.

We have called for the government to recognise the importance of EU and other international staff and students in UK universities and the research sector. We have suggested appropriate visa policies could be developed for UK universities and research should that be necessary.

Committee members expressed concern that recent government statements were not enough to continue to attract talent whose qualifications meant they could look beyond the UK. One member worried about the “decisions we won’t hear about” and the potential lost opportunities because the UK did not have “an attractive proposition.”

Johnson said there was “no evidence of an exceptional churn linked to the referendum.” He added that the government has provided “high level assurances” that the status of EU nationals currently in the UK or thinking of coming in the future would be “unchanged” provided “other EU countries didn’t change the status of other EU nationals in their countries.”

Johnson was asked about the government’s understanding of sending the right message about the economic importance of science and being able to attract bright talent, including researchers and students, from across the EU and elsewhere.

He said that was “clearly understood across government,” which recognised that “global activities and being part of a global market for the most highly talented is a crucial part of our ability to generate extraordinary returns on our science expenditure.”

We have raised concerns over the future of EU research collaborations and have called for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to collate evidence where such collaborations may have been threatened. These should be actively raised with the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

Johnson pointed to the “email hotline” set up by BIS (now BEIS) designed to capture reports of discrimination against UK researchers and institutions.

He said the bulk of the 132 email submissions (two thirds) related to funding issues, which have been allayed by early announcements from the Treasury. The remaining third “dealt with the uncertainty people felt with their status in the country and whether they could continue to stay and what sort of welcome they would have if they continued to do so.”

Mr Johnson recognised “there are outstanding issues on that front” and that fears of future discrimination persisted, but said there haven’t been “hard examples of actual discrimination.”

It was noted that while some applications dipped in the immediate aftermath of the vote, there has now been a return to pre-23 June levels of applications for Horizon 2020.

We have found that the “email hotline” is no longer easily accessible on the BEIS website. We suggest that the “email hotline” once again be featured prominently on the department site, and that BEIS continue to gather evidence and report findings in a timely manner.

We have called for the government to announce its intent to safeguard funding for research as a high-priority.

Committee members welcomed the Treasury’s pledge over the summer to underwrite post-Brexit funding for already agreed EU-funded projects, such as Horizon 2020 awards. But they pointed out that many research projects are much longer term, and pressed the minister on what assurances there would be beyond 2020.

Johnson said that regardless of EU funding streams “we’re going to continue to be an attractive country to partner with in science.” He said the UK has been a “science power long before the EU came into existence, and whatever relationships we end up having, we’ll continue to be competitive.”

We have called for the government to ensure participation in the Brexit negotiations of a representative of the UK higher education and science community.

Mr Johnson’s comments did not respond directly to this. He was asked if Brexit meant a new role for scientific advice in government, especially as science and higher education are split across two departments. He said that the Higher Education and Research Bill addresses some of the problems about “where science sits in Whitehall,” adding “that’s why the community should get behind it.”

Commenting, Ashley Lenihan, Senior Policy Advisor at the Academy and Campaign, said:

“We welcome the government’s recognition of the importance of EU staff and students to the health of UK universities and research. Additional and explicit long term assurances are now needed so that the UK can continue to attract the best and brightest talent.

“While we are also pleased to see that tools have been put in place to document perceived discrimination against UK researchers in EU funded projects, the government should take this opportunity to send a clear message that it values the role of science and social science in promoting economic prosperity and the public good. We believe the next step is for the government to make a commitment to include representation of the higher education and research community in the Brexit negotiations to ensure that the importance of science and research is considered in discussions about future policy .”

Read our latest Brexit briefing.