MPs urge government to bat for science in Brexit talks

The government should make an immediate commitment to exempt European Union scientists and researchers already working in the United Kingdom from wider potential immigration controls, and include measures to attract skilled researchers during the Brexit negotiations, Members of Parliament or MPs on the Science and Technology Committee have demanded.

Science and Technology Committee Chair, Stephen Metcalfe MP, 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."

The select committee’s report on Leaving the EU: Implications and opportunities for science and research said the consequences and opportunities for science and research of wider decisions relating to the UK’s new relationship with the EU need to be fully fed into government at the highest levels.

The government is meeting with stakeholders and assembling a high-level forum on science and research, but MPs “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. Science should have a strong voice as part of the negotiations, they said.

Metcalfe said: "That’s why we are calling on the Department for Exiting the European Union to hire a Chief Scientific Advisor 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."

Planning for exit negotiations is still underway, and there remains uncertainty about the future model of the relationship the UK will have with the EU, the MPs said. Nevertheless, the government should now act to reduce uncertainty by setting out a vision for science. This should include commitments to raise science expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product or GDP, as previously urged.

Attract skilled researchers

“It should also include measures to attract skilled researchers and students, to be taken forward in Brexit negotiations separately from immigration controls more broadly, and should include an immediate commitment to exempt EU researchers already working here from any wider potential immigration controls.”

Evidence submitted to the committee’s inquiry showed that the science community’s hopes and fears for the future revolved around five key issues:
  • • Funding – In particular the need to secure ongoing access to EU sources such as Horizon 2020 and its successors.

  • • People – Specifically, the attractiveness of the UK as a place to live, work and study, and the need to provide guarantees to those already working here.

  • • Collaboration – For UK researchers to continue to be part of multi-national projects and continue to influence the EU’s research agenda and strategic direction.

  • • Regulation – Ensuring that regulations which facilitate research collaboration and access to the EU market are retained, and those which hinder innovation are revised.

  • • Facilities – Concerns about the ability of UK researchers to continue to access EU research facilities in other countries, and the need to protect the future of those currently hosted in the UK.
The committee wants to see the government commit in the Autumn Statement to raise science expenditure as a percentage of GDP to 3%. This would demonstrate a determination not only to negotiate a post-Brexit relationship with the EU that is good for science but also to secure opportunities for science collaboration with markets beyond Europe, the MPs said.

Metcalfe said the forthcoming Autumn Statement, due on 23 November, is a chance for the government to “demonstrate its commitment to making science and research a linchpin of our economy after Brexit” and to place it at the heart of an emerging industrial strategy.

Falling behind

“As a science nation we know we already punch well above our weight, but when it comes to research and development funding we are falling behind other developed nations. If we want to make the most of the economic opportunities that Brexit could bring, we must increase our science funding in line with key competitors like Germany and the US," Metcalfe said.

The report said government must also seek to capitalise on the opportunities of Brexit, including in terms of setting regulations to facilitate accessing markets and research collaborations beyond the EU.

However, it also warned that the government must monitor how well science is being catered for as negotiations progress.

“The government must set out the metrics it will use to assess how well the UK avoids the risks of Brexit for science and research and secures the benefits. It should monitor these metrics during the course of the Brexit negotiations, and regularly publish the results,” the MPs said. “We intend to ask the minister for science for updates periodically during the course of the Brexit process.”