Brexit – reaching early deal on science and innovation as important as security

SUMMARY:

A new report by the Science and Technology Committee notes that the government needs to acts swiftly to reach a Brexit deal on science and innovation.

The government should place reaching an early deal on science and innovation during the Brexit negotiations with the EU as high up on the list of of priorities as security, according to a new report released today by the Science and Technology Select Committee.

Whilst MPs on the committee note that the UK is in a strong position in the field of science and innovation, and reaching an agreement is a ‘win-win’ scenario for both the UK and the EU, it cannot be taken for granted that the UK will remain a ‘superpower’ in these fields.

It notes in particular that agreement needs to be reached on the UK’s future involvement in the EU’s flagship research funding programme and that the UK needs to lay out its plans for migration and shared skills and knowledge in the areas of science and innovation.

The report notes:

Co-operation on science and innovation is widely regarded as a ‘win-win’ for both the UK and the EU. Securing an early agreement on science and innovation would set a positive tone for other elements of the negotiations, but the Government needs to act swiftly. It cannot be taken for granted that the UK will retain its status as a science superpower. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to agreeing a science and innovation ‘pact’, but we are concerned that if there were to be a protracted delay in agreeing this, it would have unfortunate effects.

Given the significance of science and innovation to the UK economy, reaching an agreement on this should now be as important to the Government as addressing the question of security. It must be stripped out from the wider trade negotiations for focused attention, rather than become a knock-on consequence of other negotiations or be traded against other aspects of a post-Brexit deal.

We do not accept that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ in this context. We recommend that the Government make drafting and negotiating a science and innovation agreement an urgent priority.

Horizon

The top priority for the government’s science and innovation ‘pact’ should be involvement with the EU’s flagship research programme, Horizon 2020 (or Framework programme 8 as it’s also called). A successor programme is due to be introduced – Framework programme 9 (FP9) – covering the EU’s 2021-2027 budget cycle, which is due to be negotiated with member states soon.

Horizon 2020 facilitates researcher collaboration with an emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. Horizon 2020 provides grant support along the entire research and development chain, from groundbreaking research to close-to-market activity. Horizon 2020 awards funding based on excellence and competition.

For non-EU countries currently participating in Horizon 2020 (or future programmes), they do so through either associated country status or with automatic third country status. Currently, associated countries have the same level of access to Horizon 2020 as EU Member States. Associated countries do not have a formal vote over the work programme, but can attend programme committees, which provides them with a degree of influence.

Terms of association (including financial contributions) vary, and are determined by international agreements with the EU. All third countries without formal associate status can participate in specific parts of the programme, with some restrictions. Apart from a few exceptions, these third countries are not eligible for EU funding and usually fund their own participation.

As the UK is currently still a member of the EU it is able to feed in to the EU’s current consultation on the form that FP9 should take, and the Government published its input to this process on 6 March. It outlined nine features for the new programme that the Government identify as important to the UK ,which include a focus on ‘excellence’, and the need for FP9 to “stimulate the creation of markets of the future”, through “support focused on innovation and cross-border-industry-driven collaborative research”.

It also highlighted the significance of UK SMEs being able to participate in FP9 in order to contribute to a focus on ‘innovation’.

The Committee said that it is encouraged to see the government providing input to the EU’s consultation on the shape of FP9 and said that the UK should continue to play a full part in shaping FP9 while it remains a member of the EU.

However, the government has said that the terms to be agreed in relation to future participation in FP9 would include “the size of any financial contribution, which the UK would need to weigh against other spending priorities”.

However, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah MP, told the Committee that there were two tests for the UK’s participation in FP9—a focus on ‘excellence’, and ‘value for money’. He said that “we are not going to participate at any price […] It has to be a realistic deal that works for the UK”.

The Minister added that the government’s input to the FP9 consultation was “not a commitment to associate with FP9”, but was “a positive vision of what would make the UK excited about FP9”.
The Committee is concerned that the government is not making its commitment to FP9 a certainty. It said:

We are concerned that the Government’s default position does not appear to be that the UK will participate in Framework Programme 9. While the details of the Programme have not yet been agreed, the Government should state clearly that it intends to participate unless there is a material unfavourable difference between the new Programme and its predecessor, and that the UK is ready to pay a fair ‘entry fee’ to secure this.

If the price is too high, or the focus on excellence is diluted, a change in approach might be warranted, but the Government’s explicitly stated assumption must be to participate fully. Specifically, the Government should state clearly in its response to this Report that it intends to secure Associated Country status for Framework Programme 9.

The importance of people

Unsurprisingly, key to any pact with the EU on science and innovation is the exchange of ideas and people, to ensure that the UK as access to the top talent it needs. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the President of the Royal Society, outlined gave an excellent explanation of why mobility is important to the UK in this area – even if it continues to grow its own talent it home. He said:

You may ask, “Why is mobility important at all? Why simply couldn’t we grow our own talent and why do we need immigrants?” The reason is that when you have mobility you have a much more rapid exchange of ideas and expertise. That allows you to remain at the cutting edge of, essentially, any science or technology. You cannot in isolation hope to be the leader for ever.

You may be the leader temporarily, but then other people will have different ideas. If you do not know them, you are not in good communication and you do not have shared expertise; you have a problem. That is the reason why we must encourage mobility. Regardless of how much talent we grow here, we will always need talent from abroad, because if you want to be the best in the world you have to recruit from the best. Sports teams know this. It is the same with science.

The government has made a number of top level suggestions around how a future immigration system may work post-Brexit, but we are still waiting for a detailed position paper on the issue. However, we at diginomica/government have noted the issue around Tier 2 visas, of which the industry are calling for the cap to be raised immediately in order to get access to talent.

In November 2017 the Government announced an additional 1,000 Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas. While this was a helpful measure for ensuring “the brightest and best” can work in the UK, many of the written submissions the Committee received argued that it is not only the ‘exceptional’ researchers who the UK must work to retain, but the technicians, laboratory assistants and others who occupy lower profile but no less essential roles in the UK’s science and innovation sectors.

These people would fall under ‘Tier 2’ (general) of the visa system, rather than benefit from the additional Tier 1 allocation. And the cap for Tier 2 has been reached for three consecutive months in a row.

The Migration Advisory Committee is due to report in September 2018, but Committee has warned that the current uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue for another six months. It has recommended that the Government ask the Migration Advisory Committee to bring forward its conclusions in relation to the immigration arrangements needed to support science and innovation, and build these into a science and innovation agreement with the EU by October 2018 or earlier if possible.

The Committee notes that fixing this problem of getting access to people is a top priority. The report notes:

For the UK to achieve the Government’s stated goal of continuing to welcome the brightest and the best, it is imperative that the migration system for scientists, researchers and scientific technicians recognises the need for mobility, including the benefits for scientists moving between research organisations and taking part in collaborative visits.

A EU-UK science and innovation ‘pact’ must encompass issues relating to ‘people’. A pact that does not address this fully would be pointless.

Furthermore, if a pact is not agreed in late 2018 this will increase risks to retaining and attracting the essential talent that our science and innovation sectors need.

My take

It’s good that the Committee is placing science and innovation as high up on the list of priorities as security. If the UK wants to be a world leader post-Brexit, this is an area where it needs to remain a superpower. And it needs to get an agreement on this as soon as possible. If we don’t, those resources and people may just look to the EU as their next base, as it provides a safe place for access to talent and investment.

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