DEFRA and Britain’s science and technology sector must be protected through Brexit

DEFRA and Britain’s science and technology sector must be protected through Brexit

female scientist

It feels like groundhog day. Yet another week goes by and we’re still waiting for detailed updates on government policy on areas that will change because of Brexit.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill has come to a temporary halt. But, there is news, the government will be publishing a Brexit ‘blueprint’ in the coming weeks, which promises to provide more detail on areas where questions are being posed.

Just a few weeks ago two Commons select committees published reports on the impact of Brexit on science and technology and Department for Environmental, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ability to deliver Brexit.

Both these reports highlighted the need for urgent decisions.

For example, the science and technology committee picked up on the lack of certainty around funding of research going forward. The successor to Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation, was a particular concern for the committee.

Prospect has also been waiting for an update. The government’s aspiration to agree a science and innovation pact with the EU27, which would include participation in Horizon 2020’s successor Framework Programme 9 is desperately lacking in detail.

The science minister has expressed willingness to participate providing that the price is right - whatever that may mean - but this is not simply a question of money. It is also crucial that the UK maintains its ability to influence which programmes are funded in order to maximise opportunities in our areas of scientific strengths.

Yet the stark reality is that research bodies are being forced to plan on the assumption of zero EU funding by the end of 2020 and in the face of growing reluctance to include UK partners in bid consortia.   

There are no informed dissenting voices on this issue. The science and technology select committee said that this should be ‘as important to the government as addressing the question of security’. Despite this call for action – there is little evidence of serious action.

Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee inquiry on Exiting the European Union has warned that the consequence of continuing uncertainty is that departments such as DEFRA are unable to effectively support businesses and other stakeholders to prepare for Brexit.

The select committee were also clear that under current resourcing DEFRA can’t continue to fulfil all of its responsibilities and will need to prioritise work.                 

What might this mean in practice? Biosecurity, plant and animal health are all important DEFRA functions but never headline issues until something goes badly wrong - think ash dieback disease. This is a thankfully rare occurrence as Prospect specialists regularly find listed pests and diseases on plants supplied from the EU.

But if border arrangements change, decisions will be needed either about how to handle a massively increased requirement for inspection or, perhaps more likely, whether to take calculated risks over importing possible pests and diseases.

The Public Accounts Committee found that BEIS does not know enough about which areas of science have skills gaps, nor the potential impact on the availability of key skills arising from Brexit. 

These are exactly the types of questions Prospect has been asking. And we will continue campaigning to ensure that these issues remain high on the agenda and pushing for answers that we know will affect our members.

Sue Ferns

Sue Ferns


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