Research ‘needs strong voice’ in Brexit negotiations, say MPs

Make appointing a chief scientific adviser on the EU ‘a priority’, Westminster committee tells the government

November 18, 2016
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Loud and clear: MPs have expressed concern that the UK’s ‘world-class’ research base ‘must be heard at the negotiating table’

An inquiry into the effects on science of the UK leaving the European Union has left MPs unconvinced that the needs of research are at the heart of the new Brexit department’s plans.

In a report, MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee express concern that the UK’s “world-class” research base must be “heard at the negotiating table”.

They call on the government to curb uncertainty by exempting European researchers working in the UK from any future immigration controls.

The report looks at evidence submitted to an inquiry about the implications and opportunities for science when the UK leaves the EU and is published as new research reveals that there was a significant increase in UK-EU collaborations in the four years leading up to the referendum.

Stephen Metcalfe, the committee chair, said that although the government has made some assurances on research, more needs to be done to reassure scientists.

In August, the Treasury announced that it would underwrite any European research funding for projects that continue after Brexit. But reports have suggested that scientists on the Continent are reluctant to work with their counterparts in the UK, citing concerns over the country’s withdrawal from the EU.

Mr Metcalfe said: “Uncertainty over Brexit threatens to undermine some of the UK’s ongoing international scientific collaborations. Telling EU scientists and researchers already working in the UK that they are allowed to stay is one way the government could reduce that uncertainty right away.”

He also urged the government to quickly set out its vision for science and to capitalise on the opportunities that Brexit may bring. Part of this reassurance should be a commitment to increase spending on science as a percentage of gross domestic product in the government’s Autumn Statement on its finances, according to the report.

The research-related impact of decisions about the UK’s new relationship with the EU needs to be fed into government at the highest levels, said the MPs in the report.

Mr Metcalfe added: “We are not convinced that the needs of science and research are at the heart of [the Department for Exiting the European Union's] thinking and planning for Brexit. That’s why we are calling on DExEU to hire a chief scientific adviser as a matter of priority.

“The concerns and needs of our world-class research establishments and scientists working in the UK must be heard at the negotiating table,” he said.

Evidence heard by the committee during the inquiry emphasised the need to give researchers access to European funding for research in the Horizon 2020 programme, and its successors, and raised concerns about whether scientists would still have access to EU research facilities.

As the government grapples with the form that Brexit will take, a new analysis reveals that the collaborations of UK researchers are increasingly focused on Europe.

Data from the Nature Index 2016 Collaborations supplement reveal that 700 UK institutions collaborated with EU institutions to publish research in top journals in 2015, up from 651 in 2012.

David Swinbanks, founder of the Nature Index, which tracks the best research of more than 8,000 global institutions, said that international collaboration is a rapidly growing feature of “high-quality research worldwide”.

“For the UK, this collaboration is increasingly focused on Europe. It is not surprising therefore that the uncertainty linked to Brexit is giving cause for concern,” he added.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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