Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech on Brexit resounded repeatedly with declarations of her ambition to foster a new ‘global Britain’, a term mentioned no less than twelve times. But what precisely are her government’s plans for UK research, which has been launched into a fog of uncertainty by the EU referendum? Does it have the boldness and clarity of purpose to match her rhetorical bravado?
The report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the future of UK science outside the EU is certainly a bold document. Published in December 2016, A Time for Boldness: EU Membership and UK Science After the Referendum is not without its flaws but it proposes clear actions to help UK research and higher education to face the challenges of Brexit.
However, despite the Panglossian bluster of speeches by May and her ministers on how they are going to make a success of recasting Britain’s relations with the EU and the rest of the world, the government’s response to their Lordships is incapacitated by caution. It parries, claiming it’s “too early to speculate” or that some of the matters raised are among “the many complex issues that will have to be subject to careful negotiation with the Commission and other Member States”. We should be grateful perhaps that the government is at last beginning to acknowledge the difficulty of the task ahead.
But whatever the complexity, time is not on Britain’s side if we want to protect and grow our world-leading research base. We have already had months of uncertainty and mixed messaging – on access to funding, on Britain’s attitude to overseas students, and on the status of EU nationals working in UK universities and research institutes – all critical issues that feature prominently in the Lords’ recommendations and that pose real threats to UK research even before Article 50 has been triggered. What we need now is some audacity.
Funding matters post-Brexit
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum some EU researchers asked their UK collaborators to step away from joint applications for funding for fear that their British partners would be disqualified when Brexit happened. The announcement last August that the Treasury would underwrite UK applicants for research funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 program even if collaborative projects were to outlast the country’s membership of the EU provided much-needed reassurance.
The move is likely to have rescued several applications but hasn’t been wholly effective, as Prof David Lomas told the Commons health select committee last week. That could well be because no-one knows what is going to happen beyond 2020, when the EU begins its next phase of research funding (Framework 9). It is not enough for UK participation in projects initiated under the present program to be underwritten in the event of Brexit happening before they are completed. EU researchers looking to build collaborations for the long term naturally want to have confidence that UK partners will be able to participate beyond the duration of a first project grant. Such relationships often remain productive for many years.
But May’s insistence on taking back control of immigration above all other considerations means that post-Brexit, UK researchers will no longer have access to EU funding. She might want a bespoke deal but is unlikely to get one on research. Switzerland, another major player on the European research scene, didn’t get one when it breached Freedom of Movement rules in 2014 and the UK can hardly expect more favourable treatment.
Britain needs a clear plan for replacing EU funding mechanisms and that plan should be in place well before negotiations with the EU are concluded. As the Lords’ committee recommends, the government should reconfigure the UK research funding base to take account of Brexit. The increased investment in R&D, announced in the Autumn statement, which will boost the annual R&D budget by £2billon by 2020 is very welcome, as is the prominent position accorded to research and innovation within the new industrial strategy. But it remains unclear if this increase – which still leaves us behind our major competitors in terms of public investment in R&D – was made in anticipation of the loss of EU research funds, or whether any of the new money will be targeted specifically to boost international research activity post-Brexit. The government should clarify and, to ease ongoing uncertainty, come up with a convincing mechanism for supporting productive collaborations that have already been established with EU funding.
Smarter treatment of overseas student numbers
The mantra of immigration control – exacerbated by the insular currents stirred by the referendum – is at the root of other problems. Theresa May’s vocal irritation with overseas students in her time as Home Secretary seems only to have gotten louder since she became prime minister. In doing so she has drowned out reassurances from Jo Johnson, the minister responsible for higher education, that the government has no plans to cap overseas student numbers. The students aren’t hearing him. The latest figures show that numbers are flat-lining or in decline, at a time when the global demand in the international market is growing and our competitors are looking to boost supply. The contradictory messages from government are harming a successful UK industry with annual export earnings of well over £10 billion.
The government can fix this. It makes no sense to count overseas university students among the bulk immigration statistics. As paying customers of the UK higher education sector, they fall logically into a category separate from migrant workers, a view that enjoys strong public support. It would be a canny political move to follow the Lords’ recommendation and treat them separately. At a stroke the government could cut the headline figures and start undoing the harm inflicted by Brexit on Britain’s reputation as a welcoming destination for learning.
But the government’s response to the Lords – that counting students as immigrants “in line with best practice around the world” – is, simply put, inadequate. Where is the desire to be global? Where is the ambition to be the best?
Doing the right thing by EU nationals working in the UK
Students aren’t the only people feeling the sharp end of Brexit. EU nationals working across the research and higher education sector as researchers and in other key roles – many of them settled here with their families – have been tossed into an almost Kafkaesque nightmare of uncertainty. In theory, those with five year’s residency can apply for permanent residence. In practice the rules are complex and capricious, demanding detailed information and documentation to accompany an 85-page application form. Applicants tripping over the procedural details have been shocked to receive letters from the Home Office instructing them to make preparations to leave the country.
This is no way to treat people who have contributed so much to the vigour of UK research and to our cultural and social life. The government may have expressed its resolve this issue as early as possible and, yes, it has a duty to protect the status UK nationals living in other EU countries. But to use millions of people as bargaining chips is politics of the most brutal sort.
On this issue, the Lords’ recommendation that arrangements should be made to protect mobility of researchers across Europe doesn’t go far enough. The UK could do the smart and decent thing by unilaterally guaranteeing the residency of all EU nationals who have met the 5-year rule (and by simplifying the application process).
This would secure a moral advantage and win back some of the goodwill squandered by the arrogant exceptionalism of leading Brexiteers. It could transform international perceptions by showing that Britain is so determined to go global, to be open for business, that it is willing to chance its arm. After such a move, any ploy by EU negotiators to bargain with the rights of their UK immigrants would be unmasked for the dirty politics that it is.
The guarantee could also prevent the loss of EU talent from our universities and research institutes. Given the soured political and social atmosphere – sensed by every single one of my European colleagues – and the impending loss of access to EU funding mechanisms, the best EU researchers are likely to be head-hunted by ambitious institutions on the continent. The price of tempting them away has fallen more precipitously than the pound.
The government’s response to the Lords’ report lacks a convincing sense of purpose in addressing this draining away of talent. Perhaps the expert stakeholder group established by Jo Johnson has the agility to detect early warning signs, but who knows? Its deliberations are behind closed doors. And the government’s proposal to keep open an email address (email@example.com) for people to report negative impacts of Brexit inspires little confidence: it is hardly likely to capture messages from disaffected EU researchers.
Rhetoric may be cheap but in the end it will exact a heavy price – and not just among the research community. Brexit and the people affected by it deserve urgent action and moral purpose. This is a time for our government to be bold.
Post-Brexit UK research needs bolder action from this timid government – The Guardian