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Brexit: can research light the way?



What could Brexit mean for UK science? What impact will it have on UK fisheries? Could Brexit be bad news for emissions reductions? These were just some questions discussed at a Parliamentary conference last week, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Commons Library and Parliament’s Universities Outreach team.

MPs researchers, Parliamentary staff and academic researchers from across the country came together to consider some of the key policy areas affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.


Why does academic research matter to Parliament?

Given the unchartered waters that Parliament is facing as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, it is more important than ever that Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is informed by robust and reliable evidence.

Academic research is expected to meet rigorous standards of quality, independence and transparency. Although it is far from being the only source of evidence relevant to Parliament, it has vital role to play in the effective scrutiny of Government.

“Academics can help ensure that we get the best possible outcome for the British public through describing the state of knowledge, setting out comparative knowledge (whether in different territories or over time), and evaluating what’s happening as it plays out” said Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian, in her keynote speech.

Last week’s meeting showcased relevant UK academic research as well as giving participants the opportunity to hear the perspectives and concerns of different groups. With over 100 participants, the organisers made the wise decision to split us up into smaller groups to discuss specific policy areas.  This worked rather well, although most people would have liked to be in several groups at once!

What does the future hold for UK research?

In the session on science and research funding a mix of early career researchers and more seasoned academics set out their top issues. The discussion quickly moved beyond research funding. All the researchers agreed free movement of researchers between the UK, other parts of the EU, and beyond the EU, was a top priority.  Several researchers were concerned that the UK research community would become more isolated as a result of Brexit, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best academic staff.

The group also discussed what kind of data we needed to gauge the impact of Brexit on UK research.  One researcher argued that if we wait until we have “hard data” – such as statistics on citations, publications and collaborations, it might be too late for decision-makers to intervene in any meaningful way.

Economic Impact of Brexit: New Models Needed

Researchers participating in the session on “trade relations and economic impact” highlighted that research on the economic impact of Brexit tends to focus on trade.  New models are needed that take trade into account, along with other relevant factors such as investment, migration and regulation. Participants also felt that more data on the local effects of trade deals would be useful to policymakers, but there are very few studies looking at such effects because of the many uncertainties involved.

Environment, agriculture and fisheries: ‘Cod Wars’?

What would the loss of subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy mean for UK agriculture? Participants highlighted that areas such as horticulture and fisheries in particular could end up struggling with workforce retention. On a brighter note, one researcher thought there could be some financial gain for UK fisheries if the UK took back its Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), but warned of possible future “Cod Wars” if countries clashed over fishing rights.

Immigration: how many EU nationals live in the UK?

Participants in the immigration discussion group highlighted that we do not have reliable figures for how many EU nationals live in the UK. According to some estimates the figure is around 3 million, but this is based on survey data. More reliable data is needed to make informed policy decisions. Participants also highlighted that while most of the discussion around border control focuses on people, movement of goods across borders was also vitally important.

Energy and climate: who will drive emissions reductions targets?

The energy and climate group considered the impact of Brexit across Europe as a whole. The UK has been a strong driver for ambitious emissions reduction targets for the EU. Would other nations continue to drive such targets? Participants also speculated over whether UK would remain part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme and stay involved with some of the EU’s internal energy market regulatory bodies after Brexit.

Foreign and security policy

Participants covered a huge range of topics from UK-Irish relations to the future of NATO and drug trafficking and border control. The importance of learning lessons from history was a key theme in the session, whether it related to the future of NATO or to major treaty negotiations more generally.

What next…

These conversations were not based entirely on research evidence, not least because it there are simply too many uncertainties for research to answer all our questions on the impact of Brexit. In the end our discussions were based around a mix of anecdote, opinion, and ‘hard’ evidence. Overall it was a very enriching experience and we came away with lots of new contacts and ideas.

Many of the researchers said that they’d had relatively few opportunities to feed into policy discussions with parliament and government and that there needed to be many more meetings like this one!


This article was written for The House of Commons Library Blog Second Reading by Chandy Nath, acting Director of the POST and Cressida Auckland, a POST fellow.

Picture credit: Brexit Scrabble, by Jeff Djevdet; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)

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