New horizons

Clive_Soley.jpgClive Soley on ensuring sound relations between the UK and EU science communities, beyond Brexit

I do not believe the decision to leave the European Union will be reversed in the foreseeable future. So the UK now have to work out a new, mutually beneficial, relationship with the EU. In short, forget soft and hard Brexit and start thinking of a more constructive approach which marries British interests to those of the EU. And on that allows a settlement where we have a close relationship with the EU but which also recognises that other member states may well be moving towards ‘ever closer union’.

Universities and science can play a leading role in maintaining good EU/UK relations. Labour governments have always given a high priority to scientific research and the higher education sector is a British success story. It is in our interest and that of the EU to maintain transnational co-operation – an essential part of continuing success.

There is a real, but unnecessary, fear that the current government will not protect British interests and that our universities and research work will suffer a damaging blow. EU and UK universities need a close working relationship and the negotiators must make that happen. Ideally, we will negotiate a bespoke deal which establishes a special relationship on scientific research, and allow scientists and researchers to move easily between establishments across Europe.

Negotiations should aim at protecting scientific exchanges and co-operation of the type that already exists. Agreement on funding is vital and the Horizon 2020 programme is central to that. I want the government to give a high priority to negotiating access to this and of course, for the UK to continue to pay our contribution.

Equally important is the ability to exchange students and staff. The freedom of movement issue which has been so contentious has to be negotiated in a way that allows for this. Labour will be holding the government to account on this crucial issue, of benefit to both us and the EU.

One example of the benefits of joint working is FLARECAST – a fully automated solar flare forecasting system. It is vital to protect all of our electronic communications, technologies and power transmission, and this is supported financially by Horizon 2020. The UK government recently guaranteed it would underwrite funding for such approved projects applied for before we leave the EU. But we need a way of continuing that funding beyond the actual point of Brexit.

The UK is one of the largest recipients of EU research money. We received an estimated €5.4bn for the period 2007 to 2013 and received some 8.8bn back in direct funding for R&D.

We will all be losers if the negotiations get entrenched in arguments about soft or hard Brexit. A positive EU/UK relationship is vital to not just our future but all European countries.

Lord Clive Soley of Hammersmith is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 3rd November 2016

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