Threat of Brexit to science and research: ministerial statement

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead's speech at the Parliament about possible implications of Brexit on Scottish research and science.

Deputy Presiding Officer,

yesterday I visited Queen Margaret University where I was given a tour by the wonderful Principal Petra Wend.

Petra has been at the helm for nine years and recently announced that she'll be standing down next summer.

So I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous contribution she has made, and continues to make, to higher education in Scotland.

Petra is German. And during my tour, I was struck by the international character of the university.

I visited a laboratory where I met two academics who were there to show me around. The senior research fellow was from the Netherlands. The PHD student is Greek. Later on, I had a presentation from the head of the student services. He is Bulgarian.

15% of the students at Queen Margaret are EU nationals and around 9% of the staff are EU nationals.

Across Scotland's universities and colleges and research institutions, students and staff from the EU are making an enormous contribution to Scotland and our global reputation for excellence.

Many institutions benefit greatly from EU membership with 19% of the Aberdeen University's students alone being EU nationals.

But as a result of Brexit, during my various visits, I am hearing similar messages everywhere I go.

I'm hearing about Universities hiring immigration lawyers, about staff in tears, about staff and students feeling less welcome, uncertain, insecure.

I'm hearing about talented and valued staff contemplating leaving Scotland and the UK.

And following the UK's decision to leave the EU I'm hearing everywhere about the short and long term threat Brexit poses to Scotland's research base, to funding, to our international standing and our influence and our reputation for science, research and innovation and educational excellence. That one principal quite rightly described to me as "beyond world class."

And Deputy Presiding Officer, to think that all of this damage is self-inflicted.

No wonder, the Principal of Glasgow University, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, said that a hard Brexit would "represent the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory."

Scotland's story, and especially that of our universities has been shaped by our close relationship with Europe.

Today our research institutions increasingly work together to increase impact but we've always recognised that cooperation within Scotland, or the UK, alone has never been enough for real success.

World leading success comes from reaching out beyond our borders across the globe, and across Europe of course, to add value to research endeavours in Scotland.

Scotland is building on a great history here, going back centuries, and with early links to Europe. Our first universities were set up in the 15th century, with St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen all founded through Papal Bulls, giving them the seal of approval to award degrees.

Because of the Wars of Independence with England, Scottish students had until then studied in continental Europe.

Europe influenced Scotland and Scotland influenced Europe and the world.

The Scottish Enlightenment figures of David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Hutton changed our way of thinking about the world, and our economy.

And the First Industrial Revolution is unthinkable without James Watt's steam engine, bringing science and invention together with industry and engineering.

Scientists and researchers in Scotland continue to shape society now, leading also on aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution focused on linking our cyber and our physical worlds for instance.

But this is not the only area of impact. Our excellent research base in Scotland, which is comprised of universities, research institutes and public research bodies as well as third and private sector activity, is having a very positive impact in many aspects of Scottish society.

This ranges from improved health and social care, indeed in the news today, better access to digital communications, cleaner energy and transport, to improved safety and security just to give a few examples.

We all know that science and research is an important activity in Scotland. The total investment in research and development in Scotland is 2.3 billion pounds per year.

And now more and more expert voices have been speaking out about the damage that Brexit is causing to this investment.

Because international collaboration is at the heart of the success of science and research in this country.

Scots born Nobel Laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart, another eminent scientist has said:

"What's most important is to be able to have at least 15 different nationalities in a large research group - that's the way we do science, we do it at a global level."

And Scotland is truly a global leader in science.

We are an outward looking country with valuable international collaborations that support high-quality research.

The Scottish Government alone provides around 500 million pounds annually for science and research in Scotland at universities, research institutes and public bodies, including NHS Scotland.

Scotland's Higher Education Research and Development spend as a percentage of GDP was ranked top of all parts of the UK, and fifth highest in OECD countries in 2016. A phenomenal track record.

And this has been leading to results on research excellence.

Three Scottish universities are in the Times Higher Education global top 200 for research volume, income and reputation.

And four in the global top 200 for research influence as measured by publication citations.

All of this underpins Scotland's economy and Scottish jobs.

The latest figures show that private investment in research in Scotland surpassed the 1 billion pound mark for the first time ever in 2016. 23 per cent of new UK spinouts are from Scottish universities, more than in any other part of the UK.

And just last month, Nova Innovation, was awarded the Enterprise Europe Network Award 2018 for its work on renewable energy as part of a pan-European project.

Ironic then, that our full participation in the European programme that supported this project, Horizon 2020, is now being threatened because of Brexit.

And Scotland has so far secured almost 558 million euros from Horizon 2020 alone.

Our universities are well connected globally. Scottish universities have a higher percentage of EU students, a higher percentage than other parts of the UK and more than a quarter of full time university research staff are from the EU.

We punch way above our weight.

It is no wonder then that the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019 show that nine of Scotland's universities are in the global Top 200 for International Outlook.

Deputy Presiding Officer, today, I don't just want to highlight our truly outstanding international research community in Scotland and their global connections.

I want us to safeguard all of that for the future.

Professor Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow recently gave the clearest of warnings about the impact of Brexit on science and research in this country. He said: "If I can't run a world-leading team of researchers here I'm not going to let the skills, knowledge and momentum we've built, die because of a hard Brexit. Many of us will be forced to move our research abroad."

I am shocked, and I am sure many are, and dismayed at the casual attitude the UK Government has been taking towards the threat that Brexit poses to Scotland's global reputation for world-leading research.

That it poses to the freedom of movement of both Scottish and EU researchers.

And that it poses to Scotland's ability to continue to compete and participate in key European research programmes as well.

Years of building trust through cooperation and partnership, now being sacrificed thanks to in-fighting at Westminster.

This impact is starting to be felt.

According to data in the science journal Nature, UK participation as a lead coordinator in EU multilateral projects through the Horizon 2020 has significantly reduced since 2016. 

And there are many other impacts as well.

The Third Sector invests significant amounts of money in Scottish research. And now, one of the key research funding charities, the Wellcome Trust, has raised concerns around the impact of Brexit on its future potential investment.

Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar has stated: "We have invested in the UK for more than 80 years. It has provided an environment in which science and innovation can thrive, but if the conditions and the culture here are damaged, that will affect our support. It is not unconditional."

If such damage to our reputation and status can be done even before Brexit, it is easy to see why so many are anxious about the situation after 29 March next year.

The Scottish Government paper, "Scotland's Place in Europe: Science and Research", published earlier this week, quotes the recent letter of 29 Nobel prize winners to the Prime Minister which says: "Science needs to flourish and that requires the flow of people and ideas across borders."

The UK Government's hostile rhetoric and attitude isn't helping to continue to make EU friends in this country feel welcome or at home in Scotland.

Polling by trade union Prospect showed that nearly 70 per cent of EU scientists in the UK are thinking of leaving after Brexit.

So in Scotland, a country that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, we should be resolutely focussed on attracting the best minds in Europe to work and study here to help us build a successful and prosperous nation but instead, thanks to the actions of others we face the prospect of a Brexit Brain Drain. That is what we face.

We have to stand together and stop that happening.

I have been actively encouraging EU nationals that I have been meeting, to continue to study and work at universities and other research organisations in Scotland.

And it is really important, amidst the chaos of Brexit, we need to send out a message that Scotland is open for business and that we welcome with open arms EU nationals to our universities and research institutions.

In addition to the effect on people already here, the Home Office's current approach to visiting scientists and researchers has also already been very damaging to our reputation and our ability to welcome experts from around the world.

Numerous esteemed scientists who were due recently to attend and speak at the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics held in Glasgow were denied entry to Scotland due to visa delays and refusals.

This is really unacceptable and threatens to get worse if researchers from Europe are going to be treated by the UK Government with the same relentless hostility.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the UK Government will offer, at best, a hugely damaging blindfold Brexit, which would still leave us guessing about the long term future of our valuable European research collaborations, which the UK government has made very little progress to secure.

Deputy Presiding Officer,

international collaboration is critical to maintaining and strengthening Scotland's excellence in research as well as meeting our economic policy goals and improving public services in this country.

We should not allow Brexit and the hostile immigration policies of the UK Government to constrain Scotland's scientific and economic progress.

We should ensure that Scotland will continue to be an outward-looking, open and welcoming country.

Compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland:

  • employs proportionally more EU academic staff in our universities and institutions
  • we have proportionally more EU students
  • we have proportionally more outgoing domestic students participating in Erasmus Plus
  • we punch way above our weight in securing EU research funding
  • and we have a higher rate of research staff from the EU working in Scottish institutions

And, Presiding officer, Scotland voted to Remain in the EU but is facing Brexit with our further and higher education and research sectors having the most to lose.

Our voice therefore deserves to be heard, and heeded.

Maintaining Single Market membership with freedom of movement, including for students, staff and researchers, is therefore more important to Scotland than to the UK as a whole.

And maintaining participation in EU research programmes is more important to Scotland than to the UK as a whole.

So, in conclusion, I say we must do all we can to protect this vital national sector from the reckless actions of the UK Government and Brexit.

And I commend the motion to Parliament.


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