Brexit could rob Britain of its “edge” in scientific research, the chairwoman of a parliamentary committee has warned.
Meg Hillier, chair of the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the Government was “sorely lacking” the leadership required to maintain the UK’s position in areas like robotics and climate change following the country’s exit from the European Union.
Hillier’s warning came as as a new report from the National Audit Office warned of a dearth of leadership in the fields of robotics and advanced materials research, and concluded the Government lacked “a coherent view” of investment priorities.
The report noted government expenditure on research and development in 2015 was £8.75 billion, with ministers announcing a year later an additional £4.7 billion would be provided by 2021.
However, the report said Brexit “could affect how UK research is funded in future,” particularly as as Britain is currently a net recipient of EU funding for research, taking in £7.8 billion between 2007 and 2013, compared with contributions of £4.8 billion.
Departments overseeing funding do not have the “coherent data” needed to identify where funding should be directed, the report said.
“Some areas of research have well-established arrangements to support coordination and collaboration between public sector funders,” auditor general Sir Amyas Morse said.
“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. 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.”