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How Scotland’s science minister aims to protect research from Brexit

Science minister Richard Lochhead outlines his concerns about Brexit and Scottish science.

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Protesters holding Scottish and European flags

Scottish citizens voted to remain in the EU, but now face Brexit against their wishes. Credit: Stewart Kirby/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire

The Scottish government and seven bodies representing the nation’s research and higher education sectors — including Universities Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh — have agreed to work together to protect Scottish research from Brexit.

The alliance released a joint statement on 22 November, coinciding with a Brexit summit at the University of Glasgow that attracted research leaders from across the country.

The group aims to use its collective influence to press the UK government for clarifications and firmer guarantees on research, and in particular for Scotland to get a visa system that allows overseas students and postgraduates to stay on and work after their studies.

Around one in four of Scotland’s full-time researchers and one in ten of its university students are nationals of other European Union countries. But, once Britain leaves the EU, it is likely to be harder for EU nationals to come to the United Kingdom to work.

The EU also accounts for some 10% of Scottish university research funding. In contrast to the United Kingdom overall, Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Nature spoke to Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, who organized and attended this week’s summit and who will soon be taking delegations to Brussels and London to lobby for policies to protect Scottish science from Brexit.

Richard Lochhead

Richard Lochhead was appointed as Scotland’s science minister in September 2018.Credit: Ken Jack/Corbis/Getty

What are your key concerns about Brexit and science in Scotland?

I’ve been taken aback by the huge levels of anxiety and concern in science and higher education in Scotland over the impacts of Brexit. The key concern is the end of freedom of movement, which is crucially important for scientific collaboration, with staff able to move freely between EU member states. We have a disproportionate share of other EU nationals in the research workforce in Scotland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a real risk of a Brexit brain drain. Our universities have begun hiring immigration lawyers to advise staff. There is also a real danger of Scotland being left behind in terms of European research consortia.

One of the group’s demands is for the country to have its own visa regime. Why is that so important for researchers?

If Brexit goes ahead, I see it as my job as minister to send out the message to Europe and the world that Scotland is open to them, and we will continue to promote our outward-looking, internationalist approach to life. But immigration policy remains in the hands of the UK government, so we need more devolution of powers to be able to create a post-study work visa in Scotland.

On 7 November, the Scottish parliament became the first UK legislative body to support a public vote on the final terms of any Brexit deal. As science minister, you voted in favour; why?

Both science and higher education, but also Scotland as a whole, are going to take a disproportionate hit from Brexit. So for that reason, as elected representatives, we have a duty to do our best to stop Brexit, or — if it goes ahead — to minimize its impact. The Scottish government supports a people’s vote to stop Brexit, as do many in the scientific community. But if Brexit does go ahead and we are taken out of the EU against out wishes, then we want a bespoke deal for Scotland that would provide for it remaining in the EU single market and customs union. This is absolutely essential for the future of science in this country, and our universities.

In 2014, Nature reported that scientists were split as to which way to vote in Scotland’s referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Could Brexit create pressure for a new independence referendum?

Well, a big part of the debate during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the potential negative impact on science and higher education. And at the time, the UK government and the Better Together campaign that opposed independence argued that only by voting ‘no’ could we keep our place in the EU. And here we are in 2018, still part of the United Kingdom, but facing leaving the EU against our wishes. So it’s no wonder that so many in the scientific community and so many Scots are angry and feel betrayed by the UK government.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07516-5

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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