Skip to content

Science and engineering must stay at the negotiating table for Brexit

29 Mar 2017

CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid, describes how CaSE will keep pressing the interests of science and engineering at senior levels in Government as Brexit negotiations get going.

The Prime Minister has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, beginning the formal process of leaving the European Union.  This will lead to important changes in the landscape for science and engineering in the UK. CaSE has been closely engaged in the Brexit debate from the outset. 

 Together with the Engineering Professors’ Council, CaSE produced one of the first – maybe the first – systematic analysis showing the huge majority of people in the science and engineering community who favoured EU membership.

That report fed into the House of Lords’ major report of EU membership and UK Science in April 2016, shortly before the referendum. I was Specialist Advisor to the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee during that inquiry. The Committee was scrupulously neutral on the Brexit debate but found overwhelming support for EU membership in the evidence they received.  Meanwhile Executive Director, Dr Sarah Main, has held countless meetings with Government officials, given extensive evidence to the House of Commons enquiry on Brexit and raised the profile of science in the Brexit debate through appearances on television.

During the Party Conference season last autumn, I chaired fringe meetings at the Labour, SNP and Conservative conferences. These events were organised by the National Academies with The Royal Society’s Becky Purvis, a member of the CaSE Board, playing a key role. Science Minister Jo Johnson came to the Conservative meeting where the only topic of discussion was immigration and Brexit – he said to me afterwards just how clearly he had received the message.  

Following representations from CaSE, the CBI and the Royal Society, the November 2016 autumn statement brought a major increase in research funding – rising be £2bn pa by 2021. In addition, the Treasury has promised to make good any loss of EU funding for projects agreed before the UK leaves the EU. 

Encouraging noises – no promises yet – are being made in both Westminster and Brussels about an early and separate deal to secure the positions of EU citizens who have chosen to live in the UK and people from this country who live elsewhere in the EU. Recent discussions with Ministers in the Department for Exiting the EU have confirmed that position. The value of continued collaboration between UK and EU research communities also seems to be gaining wider recognition on both sides of the Channel.

But we are only at the start of a process of unprecedented complexity and political sensitivity. So far, science and engineering have held their ground. In fact they have been more prominent than I expected. But as the realities of the negotiations become clear, and the political pressure on negotiators builds up, trade and immigration will inevitably take on a high profile. Science and engineering interests will need to work harder than ever to maintain their profile.

In preparation for Brexit, Science Minister Jo Johnson MP created a high level forum to inform the Government’s negotiating position. CaSE are members of that forum and Sarah Main or I attend every meeting. A Minister for the Department for Exiting the EU is present along with top officials from BEIS and UKRI.   

CaSE has already held meetings with member organisations to discuss negotiating priorities and inform CaSE’s Brexit work with Government and Parliament. Some issues are well understood at a national level: funding, collaboration, immigration and research infrastructure. But we need to better understand the implications for geographic regions and nations of the UK; individual science and engineering disciplines; key industry sectors and individual businesses and universities. 

Other areas may move up the agenda as Brexit negotiations proceed. For example, James Lawford Davies, a lawyer and member of the CaSE Board, was one of the first people to highlight the widespread demands that will be placed on the science community to support the regulatory functions that will transfer from the EU to the UK after Brexit. That may create unprecedented opportunities for the science community as well as putting even greater pressure on the Government’s scientific advisors.  James’ advice was incorporated into a December 2016 report from the House of Lords.

CaSE will be relentless in pressing home the interests of member organisations and individuals.  Most of our work will continue to be behind the scenes. The CaSE team is already well informed on the issues but this is a dynamic environment in which new evidence and arguments may appear without warning. CaSE will be at its best if members keep feeding in new concerns, reports of meetings and other information. Those contributions can be treated confidentially.