Brexit could mean UK losing edge in scientific research, says MPs committee head


Britain risks "losing our edge" as a scientific research powerhouse as a result of Brexit, the chairwoman of an influential parliamentary committee has warned.

Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the Government was "sorely lacking" so far in the leadership that will be needed to maintain Britain's position in areas like robotics and climate change following withdrawal from the European Union.

She was speaking as a new report from Whitehall spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned of shortcomings in leadership on robotics and advanced materials research and said the Government lacked "a coherent view" of investment priorities.

Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier
Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier

The NAO report said the total UK government expenditure on research and development in 2015 was £8.75 billion, with ministers announcing in 2016 that they would provide an additional £4.7 billion by 2021.

But it warned that Brexit "could affect how UK research is funded in future", as Britain is currently a net recipient of EU funding for research, taking in 8.8 billion euro (£7.8 billion) between 2007 and 2013, compared with contributions of 5.4 billion euro (£4.8 billion).

The report found a risk that departments providing funding do not have the "coherent data" needed to identify areas where Britain is lagging behind and which programmes could be hit by Brexit and to ensure investment goes to the right activities.

Collective action is needed to prioritise investment in climate research, robotics and advanced materials, it said.

Auditor general Sir Amyas Morse said: "Some areas of research have well-established arrangements to support co-ordination and collaboration between public sector funders.

"But some newer areas, including important emerging technologies and areas of national importance, need more effective leadership. As a proportion of GDP, the UK spends less on research and development than many comparable nations.

"Government needs a coherent view of the UK's research strengths relative to other nations and analysis of funding in key areas of research, so that it can prioritise areas where activity is lagging behind and ensure the UK is investing in the right areas."


Ms Hillier said: "As members of the EU, we have access to European projects, free movement of researchers, and billions of pounds of investment in the UK from the EU. There is a risk we could lose our edge as a research power as a result of Brexit.

"In order to avoid that we need strong leadership from Government departments and UKRI (UK Research & Innovation). But to date, in important areas like robotics and climate change, that leadership has been sorely lacking."

A Government spokesman said: "The Government has put science, research and innovation at the heart of its Industrial Strategy and invested an additional £4.7 billion to 2020/21 - the biggest single increase since 1979 - to keep the UK at the forefront of new technologies.

"The NAO has welcomed the creation of UK Research and Innovation, giving the UK's research and innovation community a strong, unified voice and renewed focus to showcase the UK's expertise on a global stage."