Written by Sir Noel Malcolm 

This article was published in ‘Briefings for Brexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission.


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Part I was published here.

So what was the real news here? To go back to the morning broadcast, it was that Lady Manningham-Buller (herself a prominent and vocal Remainer) had written, on behalf of the Wellcome Trust, a letter to Boris Johnson about science funding. The full text of that letter has been made available.

The first point it makes is that while it is good that the Government is committed to spending more on scientific research, the UK needs to do even more:

‘We welcome the existing commitment to increasing R&D investment, but if we are to remain a science superpower, we will need to mirror those countries who plan to spend much more than we do, such as Germany.’

This is an understandable request for any scientific body to make; but it has no direct connection with Brexit, whether with a ‘deal’ or without one.

The second point is that in order for scientific research to flourish, we shall need to make it easier for researchers to come here from abroad:

‘Science is increasingly collaborative and international. We must become a global science hub, and to do this, we need a much more welcoming immigration policy designed to attract the best researchers and their families to the UK. We need their talent to stimulate our own research.’

That is also a very reasonable request, and it is indeed related to Brexit. But it has little or nothing to do with the question of whether we should leave with or without a ‘deal’. (Of course, if the ‘deal’ involved staying in the Single Market with unlimited EU immigration, that would indeed make things easy for would-be immigrants from those 27 countries; but that was not on offer even from Theresa May. Besides, Lady Manningham-Buller is talking here about becoming a ‘global’ science hub, and one of the effects of unlimited EU immigration, including unskilled workers, has been to increase the pressure to limit the immigration of all workers, including skilled ones, from all the other 168-odd countries around the globe.) Boris Johnson is already talking about moving away from Theresa May’s rigid post-Brexit plan of a salary threshold, to introduce instead a ‘points’ system which can privilege the skills we want: so it seems that Lady Manningham-Buller is pushing at an opening door. And, just to repeat: that new immigration policy is not dependent on whether we have ‘no deal’ or some modified version of Mrs May’s deal, so the ‘no deal’ angle is irrelevant here too.

And the letter’s final point:

‘Wellcome spends around £1 billion a year to support research, and most of our money is spent in the UK because it has a thriving sector. Leaving the EU without a deal is a threat to that. I am afraid that some damage has already been done, with loss of researchers, and influence. While science promotes global collaboration, the barriers to success need to be minimized, including with Europe where our closest and most extensive science relationships are. That means negotiating associated country status in the EU’s ‘Horizon Europe’ research programme, even if we intend to create our own systems in the years ahead. The final months of 2019 could be a tipping point for UK science: either an exciting moment of renewed purpose and ambition, or the point at which the UK’s scientific reputation and success starts to wane.’

Here the key request – indeed, the only specific request – is that the Government negotiate ‘associated country’ status in the next EU framework programme for scientific research (which begins in 2021). For a long time, applying for such status has been the recommendation of all serious Brexiteers who have considered these matters. Associated countries participate in most of the research funding programmes organised by the EU. A few programmes are unfortunately excluded; but that will be the case whether we leave with a ‘deal’ or without, as those exclusions apply automatically to any country that is not a member-state of the EU. Once again, ‘deal or no deal’ makes no difference here. Mrs May would have applied for this new status after her deal; we can apply for it just as well after ‘no deal’.

So, to conclude: what was this major news story, a story of such national importance that it rose to third, and then second place, in the BBC’s news broadcasts?

It was that Lady Manningham-Buller had done some lobbying on behalf of scientific researchers. Perfectly reasonable, but highly predictable – and therefore hardly newsworthy at all. But she had added one unsubstantiated remark, which did not connect in any factual way with the rest of her letter: ‘Leaving the EU without a deal is a threat to that’ (the ‘that’ being the fact that UK science is a ‘thriving sector’). Professor Pavlov’s dogs salivated when a bell was rung; BBC newsrooms react similarly when any solemn-sounding warning is issued about a no-deal Brexit. But Pavlov’s dogs were chained, whereas BBC news editors have a little more freedom of action. When they feel that there is inadequate substance to their story, instead of dropping it, they can send off a reporter to bulk it out with the sort of extra statement they want, from anyone who can be relied on to provide it.

So, within a few hours, the news was not just about a lobbying letter; it was that ‘scientists’ – in an ominous generalised plural – were warning Boris Johnson that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit would cause the failure of scientific research in this country. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Noel Malcolm is a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

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