The Committee for Exiting the EU heard evidence from Professor Michael Arthur, Chair, Russell Group EU Advisory Group, Professor Richard Brook OBE, President, Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations, Dr Sarah Main, Executive Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering and Dr Beth Thompson MBE, Head of Policy (UK and EU), Wellcome Trust.
I asked them about how Brexit had affected the dynamic of the relationship between UK and EU institutions, and the UK’s ability to shape Framework Programme 9, the EU’s future research and innovation programmes.
Stephen Kinnock: I want to come back on something that Professor Arthur said earlier. You mentioned this Brexit mitigation committee that you are involved in. You said it has met 40 times since the referendum, or whenever it might have been.
Professor Arthur: Since the referendum, yes.
Stephen Kinnock: I was just wondering if all the panellists could give a sense of how much of your time is now being absorbed into dealing with the fallout of the 23 June 2016 referendum. If you had to give a rough number of hours in a week that you are spending on dealing with this rather than dealing with your business as usual, would you be able to give an estimate of the percentage of time?
Professor Arthur: I will start while the others think. I would describe it as being very intensive in the early phases after the referendum, largely around all the people issues. It is really difficult to explain, but there were literally Europeans crying in my office—those were the levels of emotion. There was lots of anxiety about futures, families, access to healthcare, the sorts of things that matter in feeling stable in your environment and work. The human impact stuff consumed a lot of hours of a lot of leaders in the institution, and I think we would be running into hundreds to thousands of hours in that initial phase. About 20% of my staff are EU citizens. Of course, EU students as well were deeply upset.
Over time, it has lessened. My Brexit mitigation group, which was meeting weekly, now meets monthly, and we put in the occasional emergency meeting if something else happens that we need to think through. It is quite a high-powered group—it involves some of my vice-provosts, some of my deans, my key directors of HR, finance, and so on. We are trying to manage that level of uncertainty as best we can. The answer is that it is very significant, but I could not give you a precise number of hours. Fortunately, they do not clock my hours in that way. Actually, perhaps it would be to my advantage if they did.
Stephen Kinnock: I am not suggesting you send the Committee a timesheet or anything like that.
Dr Main: I heard a really different perspective from a digital company that engages in a lot of these framework programmes that we have talked about. It is a US-owned company with a presence in London and mainland Europe. They described a conversation after the referendum in which they met for about 10 minutes and talked about the business risk mitigation I mentioned earlier. There was a bit of saying, “Goodness, what should we do now?” There was then a business risk decision, which they made very rapidly, that they would simply have to increase their base in mainland Europe in order to have a reasonable business plan going forward that meant they would still be able to engage in all the programmes that we have heard about.
Across the different sorts of organisations I deal with, there is a full range of answers to your question, from very deep involvement to some businesses that, because of their nature, have to make quick decisions. That ties into the point that Professor Brook made earlier about some of the consequentials that are happening now, simply because people have to make choices.
Professor Brook: This is a very subjective assessment. Personally, I would say it is about a third of my time. For our individual members, there will have been some quite serious discussions at board level and senior management level about strategy. I can go and ask what the impact has roughly been, but I do not have a figure. HR departments have been very heavily involved in the process of reassuring staff, and that has taken very considerable time and a lot of staff meetings.
I know one member that has taken the decision to establish itself outside the UK. They said to me that a million pounds of investment that they were proposing to put into a facility up in the north-east has now gone to Ireland. That kind of decision has been taken at board level. I think the decision was fairly quick, because they have no alternative unless they are going to take a major risk with losing future business. For want of a better number, I would guess maybe a third of board time would be concerned with Brexit issues, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is a significant amount.
Dr Thompson: I can be very brief. Wellcome does not receive any funding from the EU—our funding is independent of the EU, so our role on Brexit is rather different. We are focused on making sure that we can get the best possible deal for science. That said, my team is focused on making sure that we have a great environment to do research in, and Brexit poses significant challenges to that, which we have to mitigate. We are spending a significant amount of time on that as a team, but those are not mitigation activities in terms of Wellcome’s own business.
Stephen Kinnock: I want to get on to the design of framework programme 9. Professor Arthur, you mentioned that you have been out in Brussels working on the design of framework programme 9 and involved in inputting to it, as the UK has always been since its membership of the EU started and since these programmes started. Have you noticed any change in the dynamics of the relationship and the extent to which the UK has been able to influence the shaping of the programme?
Professor Arthur: To be clear, we have not been directly involved in discussion of the design. We have submitted evidence and our view, as the Russell Group, and that has been quite well received. It has also been quite well received and shaped the British Government’s view as they enter the negotiations.
How can I best describe the reception one gets? Most meetings start with a level of incredulity at what we are doing, and some requests for us to try to explain what is going on and where we have got to, which is always difficult because we do not know the detail.
Stephen Kinnock: Join the club.
Professor Arthur: I would definitely say that there is very, very strong support for continued British involvement in European science, from all of the officials, the research director, and the Commission. Commissioner Moedas in particular is clear about his desire to continue to see strong UK involvement in all the instruments of framework 9, and beyond framework 9 as well. He has been pushing for his catchphrase, which is “open innovation, open science, open to the world”. He wants to see many other countries involved with European research and innovation, and begins to describe our future as being one of the leaders in that bracket of other countries that will be involved in the EU.
The Russell Group hopes that we can move through to an overarching agreement. Presumably there will first of all be the framework agreement in October, and then the more detailed work in the transition period. The science elements of this are fairly straightforward, with a couple of issues, not least of which is the mobility issue we have already discussed, which it intersects with our ability to be effective in European research. We find really strong support and we find that, by the way, from all the major European agencies, research agencies, Max Planck, CNRS, and from our collaborating universities, from the rectors. They have all been making representations to their Governments that European science is significantly diminished if we are not involved. It is definitely a win-win. Europe gains a huge amount by our continued involvement and we gain a huge amount by our participation.
To our mind, by the way, that is not just about FP9 in its narrow sense. It is about all the instruments; it is about innovation, Marie Skłodowska Curie, and Erasmus and student exchange. We think we need a package that provides that continued arrangement as an associated country, but where that association agreement is tailored to the nature of what you can bring and recognises the value that we bring. That is what Commissioner Moedas means when he says “open to the world”. He wants to see different arrangements for different countries, to bring them to that level of excellence.
Dr Thompson: This concept of an association agreement and being an associated country within FP9 is really important, particularly because we are in the middle of drafting legislation at the moment. In this, we are not looking for a complete departure from the way the EU works. There have always been associated countries within those EU programmes, such as Switzerland, Norway and Israel. Therefore, we need to make sure that the FP9 legislation creates a route for the UK to participate in that.
Under the current Horizon 2020 legislation, it is not clear how the UK would engage, so it is really important that we take this good will—we hear exactly the same as Professor Arthur from funding organisations and the research community across Europe—and turn it into a clear political path that will take us towards an association agreement. We cannot have that association agreement until the framework programme legislation is finalised, so that is some way away, but it would be very helpful as soon as possible to have clarity on what that deal might look like and where we are heading, not least to make sure that the framework programme legislation creates a clear route for the UK to participate. We think everyone agrees with that principle.
Stephen Kinnock: It is very useful to hear from the panel your clear view that, within that overall political path, the association agreement path sounds like the only one that you could see working, in terms of that overarching agreement and more specifically for your context. My final question is this. You have said one of the upsides of Brexit is that it has forced you to think more globally and not default to the relationship with the EU. Can you see any scenario whereby that advantage could potentially outweigh the disadvantages of disrupting the relationship with the EU that Brexit has caused?
Chair: A very brief answer from any one of you would be fine.
Professor Arthur: No.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you very much. That is fine.