Speech

International scientific solutions to our shared global challenge

Speech by Jo Johnson MP, Minster for Universities and Science, at EuroScience Open Forum 2016 in Manchester.

Jo  Johnson MP

Manchester is a city of radical thinking, inspirational science and world-changing firsts.

It is excellent to be here today (25 July 2016) in one of the cradles of the industrial revolution. The city where, in 1948, the first computer with a stored programme and memory, nicknamed ‘Baby’, was developed at Manchester University.

And the birthplace of graphene, a revolutionary material, discovered by 2 scientists, who were born overseas and chose to make Britain their home.

Ladies and gentleman, this is an important moment for British science, as we contemplate our future beyond membership of the European Union.

Theresa May, in one of her first major speeches as Prime Minister, said she wanted the United Kingdom to formulate a new industrial strategy; and great British science, as one of our truly outstanding national assets and areas of comparative advantage, will surely be one of its main building-blocks.

The case for doing everything we can to build up our national strengths in science and innovation in a post-Brexit world is powerful.

And Manchester must play its full part.

I am pleased that Manchester and the East Cheshire region are undertaking one of the first science and innovation audits, focusing on their ‘core strength’ areas of health innovation and advanced materials; as well as the ‘fast growth opportunities’ around digital, energy, and industrial biotechnology.

You are leading the way in these audits, gathering the evidence needed to make quality decisions that will have a real impact.

And it is with this in mind I am pleased to be able to announce that the second call for expressions of interest for the next wave of science and innovation audits will be launched today.

Designed to map out local research, innovation and infrastructure strengths across the UK, these audits will help identify and build on the potential of every region across the country by making sure investment is properly targeted and uncovering opportunities for businesses to tap into.

Today, here at ESOF, we have an opportunity to remind ourselves that science is international; that we live in a world in which no border can be closed to science; that the UK plays a leading role in that global endeavour; and that scientific progress here or anywhere else hinges on the close partnerships that we forge.

It was impressive that the organisers of ESOF received 350 applications from scientists from the 4 corners of the globe to be given the opportunity to deliver scientific sessions during this conference in response to the overarching conference theme ‘Science as Revolution’.

I hope that the presentations and discussions in the 150 successful sessions over the coming 3 days allow for exploration and debate on the ways which science and technology are continuing to revolutionise the world around us.

Post-referendum priorities

You don’t need me to tell you that excellent science depends on excellent collaboration: sharing ideas, comparing notes, testing assumptions and, occasionally, disagreeing with each other.

This is why ‘openness’, as Commissioner Carlos Moedas has so eloquently explained, is such an important part of the equation.

And, I completely agree with his assessment that the strongest position to have, that benefits us all, is to be collaborative, outcome-focussed and global in our approach.

It is just over a month since the UK referendum, and the exact structure of the relationship that the UK has with the EU will require much detailed discussion. But I am absolutely clear that we will be more outward-looking than ever as a country. As the Prime Minister has said, leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe or turning our backs on the world.

That’s why I am concerned by reports that UK participants are being asked not to lead or participate in Horizon 2020 project bids or are reluctant to apply for longer projects as they are not confident they will receive money due after the UK’s eventual departure from the EU.

It is worth remembering that in legal terms, nothing changed overnight following the referendum. The UK remains an EU member during the 2-year renegotiation period, with all the rights and obligations that derive from this.

EU students studying here, or looking to start in the autumn, remain eligible for student finance for the full duration of their courses. We remain fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU. We hugely value the contribution of EU and international staff. And there are no immediate changes to their rights to live and work in the UK.

I would like to thank Commissioner Carlos Moedas and his colleagues in the European Commission for helping us to remind people of these facts.

Just as I welcome the statement by the League of European Research Universities that UK universities are, and will continue to be, indispensable collaborative partners; its decision to call upon those who review funding applications to see the engagement of UK partners as a desirable feature of projects, rather than a risk; and its commendable position that it is “completely inappropriate to respond to the referendum by taking decisions that punish UK researchers, or disrupt partnerships”.

Of course, I completely understand that Brexit inevitably poses new challenges for us all. The immediate concerns around movement of people and grant status, are understandable, they are the obvious things to worry about when collaborations can run for many years and individual careers depend on making the right decisions.

I recognise the demand for further clarity on these issues.

In the meantime, as the UK establishes its new position in the world, we will work with you to protect our research and innovation at this time of change.

And, forgive me, Carlos, but even on the continent of Europe, the EU is not the only game in town. Academic and research cooperation in Europe predates the EU by centuries, and the community of European academic institutions has always been much wider than the EU.

The UK will continue to play a leading role in major non-EU research collaborations that take place here – from CERN in Switzerland to the European Space Agency. Just this month we confirmed the UK’s application to become a full member of a major new particle accelerator, the European Spallation Source in Sweden.

Here in the UK, we have fundamental strengths on which we must now build.

First and foremost, we have a long established system that supports, and therefore attracts, the brightest minds, at all stages of their careers. We fund excellent science wherever it is found, and ensure there is the academic freedom - the support for the scientific temper - to tackle important scientific questions.

As a government, we recognise the contribution that our world-class research base makes to our economy and wellbeing, which is why we have committed to protect the science budget in real terms, and protect the funding that flows through Innovate UK in cash terms.

The new Prime Minister has already recognised this in a letter last week to Sir Paul Nurse, the Royal Society and the CBI, which reiterated the government’s manifesto and Spending Review pledges to protecting science and research funding in real terms. This clear personal commitment is hugely welcome.

Second, we have excellent scientific infrastructure here in the UK – in universities, in existing research institutes, such as the Medical research Council MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and in new institutes like ‘The Crick’ and ‘Royce’. This is backed by a manifesto commitment of £6.9 billion capital funding up to 2021 – that’s record levels of investment in new equipment, new laboratories and new research institutes.

Third, we have access to major research infrastructures across the world, such as the Large Hadron Collider, in which the UK plays a leading role. We are a major partner in building new infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array whose global headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank; and in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which made the dramatic gravitational waves discovery. It was UK researchers, working with their counterparts, who made this discovery possible.

And we are also hugely successful at innovation – second in the latest Global Innovation Index and one of the most attractive countries in the OECD for international business research and development investment.

Newton Fund

And to add to these successes, we are now more ambitious than ever to build global research partnerships that not only put the UK at the forefront of international research on global challenges, but also support the economic development and social welfare of developing countries around the world.

The government’s Science and Innovation Network, through which 90 staff based in 31 countries around the world support work on global challenges such as antimicrobial resistance and climate change, exemplifies our global approach.

We have doubled our investment in the Newton Fund to £150 million per year by 2021, meaning a total UK investment of £735 million from 2014 to 2021. This is match-funded by developing countries we have identified as having the potential to become future science and innovation leaders and can benefit most from collaboration.

Extending the Newton Fund has provided a unique opportunity for UK scientists to work with partners around the world to address some of the biggest challenges of our time. And we are already seeing an impact. Since its launch, the Newton Fund has supported more than 420 awarded funded research projects on development topics including sustainable food production, urbanisation and antimicrobial resistance. Over 1,000 fellowships and placements were awarded in the first 2 years and around 1,750 researchers have made links between the UK and Newton partner countries.

We are also creating a new £1 million Newton Prize, starting next year. This will not be just a one off, but an annual prize – awarded for the best science or innovation projects that promote the economic development and social welfare of Newton partner countries or address the problems of poor people around the world.

By working together on bi-lateral and multi-lateral programmes with a research and innovation focus, the UK will build strong, sustainable, systemic relationships with partner countries. This will support the continued excellence of the UK research base and innovation ecosystem and act as a catalyst to unlock opportunities for wider collaboration and trade.

ESOF is a fantastic example of the international nature of collaboration - long may it continue. As I hope I have made clear today, the UK is, and will continue to be, a hub of global activity. And this government, now more than ever, will play its part in ensuring that the UK continues to be a place for great minds to come together from Europe and from all over the world to build knowledge, understanding and better solutions to our shared global challenge.

Published 25 July 2016