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Government to probe claims of Brexit discrimination against UK researchers

Evidence of discrimination towards British universities and academics following the referendum vote is being collected by the government so “appropriate steps” can be taken.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was “extremely concerned” by anecdotal reports that institutions in the rest of Europe have become reluctant to include UK universities in consortia bidding for EU research funding.

A unit inside BIS has been set up to receive emails – research@bis.gsi.gov.uk – from institutions with hard evidence of such a reaction from European colleagues and organisations.

Giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, the minister said: “We’ve been very clear that there should be no discrimination against UK institutions, soft or hard. We made representations to the EU commissioner Carlos Moedas and have sought his reassurances. We are fully able to bid and to lead bids for Horizon 2020 and we must feel confident in doing so.”

Professor Philip Nelson, Chair of Research Councils UK, also giving evidence, said he had heard multiple stories of some “really quite unpleasant things happening with UK researchers being asked to leave consortia”.

“I’ve had six different vice chancellors tell me separate stories about consortia taking negative attitudes to the inclusion of UK researchers,” he said. “Technically we have not left the EU. But in the minds of many, things clearly have changed and we are seriously worried about that.”

The professor gave the example of Glasgow University which was trying to attract a top class physicist who had decided not to come to the UK because he feared funding for his particular area of expertise may no longer be there.

Johnson revealed that the Department was working on a “comprehensive communications strategy” to emphasise that post-Brexit, the UK is more open and outward looking than ever before.

“We went to underscore that we are a warm and welcoming country. We want the brightest and best scientists and researchers to feel that they can do great science in the UK and that they will have a first class experience when they come and live and work here,” he said. “We want to reassure the science community that we remain committed to keeping Britain at the forefront of science around the world and reassure our European partners that our obligations to them and to European nationals coming to the UK remain unchanged as we stand today.”

However, Johnson would not be drawn into making commitments beyond the BIS statement made immediately after the referendum providing initial reassurance on the status of EU students and university employees currently in UK higher education and those joining in 2016/17.

“We understand that there are outstanding questions around 2017/18 and years after,” he said. “We are moving as rapidly as we can within government to try and get further clarification on those questions.”

He also declined to outline which partnership model with Europe or future immigration system he thought would work best for UK science, research and innovation.

Johnson said he had been speaking with Oliver Letwin, the cabinet minister in charge of leaving the European Union, who he said was fully aware that science and research was one of the biggest aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

The minister also confirmed that the Higher Education and Research Bill would progress as planned.

“We await the Bill’s second reading but it will be carried forward,” he said. “It is actually more important than ever that we make rapid progress on the Bill. It is becoming increasingly obvious across the community that we need a strong and coherent voice for science.”

 

 

Jo Johnson
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