Skip to main content

Science, Innovation and Technology

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Horizon Europe

I am thrilled to answer today for the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, stepping in while my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) begins her maternity leave. May I also take a moment to wish my colleague, the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) well? As a Department, we are keen to make maternity leave normal and successful, and it is vital that this House gives support to that.

Outstanding science and research is vital to me, to my right hon. Friend who has started her maternity leave and to the Prime Minister, so we are working hard on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe. We hope negotiations will be successful and that it is our preference. However, our participation must be on the basis of a good deal for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers. If we are not able to associate on the right terms, we will implement our bold, ambitious alternative to Horizon—Pioneer.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place. Having the University of Hull in my patch, I know very well how important Horizon grants have been to the funding of research and scientific excellence. The Conservative party made a manifesto promise to secure association to Horizon Europe, which is the world’s biggest science funding and collaboration programme. How can universities and scientists plan for the future if that has not been sorted out yet?

The right hon. Lady’s question reflects exactly why we are working so hard to achieve that association. However, we need to accommodate the lasting impact of two years of European Union delays to the United Kingdom’s association. Senior scientists, such as Professor Boyle, the chair of the Universities UK relevant network, for example, acknowledge that our approach demonstrates how seriously this issue is being taken by all sides. They also agree that it is entirely appropriate that we have the alternative plan and that the sector can work together with the Government to achieve that.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place.

We have the best scientists, universities and institutions in the world here in the UK. The best science comes from research collaboration. Our UK scientists want to collaborate, and the world wants to collaborate with us. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to rejoining Horizon and similar programmes?

As I have already said at this Dispatch Box, I can confirm that association is our preference. However, that must be on the basis of the right deal and a fair set of terms for UK taxpayers, researchers and all others involved. I also gladly confirm that in this Government we see a golden thread that goes from outstanding basic science through research to innovations that change people’s lives, sustain economic growth and create solutions to the challenges of the age.

Commercialisation of Research

Better commercialising our UK research is completely key to our global science superpower and domestic innovation nation missions, and a key component of our science and technology framework and this Department’s work. I am delighted to report that spin-outs from universities have gone up sixfold in the past nine years, to £2.5 billion last year, and in the life sciences sector that has gone up 1000% since we took office. We are creating jobs and opportunities for innovation clusters all around the UK, including in west London.

We have just heard about uncertainty about Horizon. In addition, there are no more European structural funds and under-investment in R&D. We are hurtling down the global rankings for clinical research trials. The Minister just mentioned life sciences, but last week Novartis, the Swiss pharma giant, pulled out of a major trial for cardiovascular drugs in this country for those very reasons. When will the Government admit that, rather than an example of confidence in the world-beating, post-Brexit life sciences sector that the ex-Health Secretary who went to the jungle claimed at the time it would be, that decision shows what an unmitigated disaster Brexit has been? When will they fix this mess?

Here we go—Labour talking Britain down again. The truth is that I am not at all complacent about the clinical trials numbers. At the Life Sciences Council, in the next few weeks, we will be setting out a very clear plan to reverse the decline since the pandemic in the NHS.

The hon. Lady might have mentioned the major investment coming into west London—her part of the world—including the MedTech SuperConnector, the spin-outs there and SynbiCITE, the synthetic biology hub. She might at least acknowledge the major investment —billions of pounds—from Moderna and BioNTech into this country, laying the foundation for a next phase of science innovation. With the life sciences sector, we are in a global race, but we are still leading in the technologies of tomorrow.

Can my hon. Friend comment on the Department’s 10-point science and technology framework, which will help provide the long-term funding needed to turn the start-ups he has mentioned into sustainable, successful, globally leading businesses?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a strong champion of that agenda. In the new Department’s science and technology framework we have set out a long-term, 10-year view of the serious reforms that we need to make to procurement, regulation and skills across the whole of Government if we are to drive our science superpower agenda. A fundamental part of that is converting the health of our start-up ecosystem into scale-ups. That is why the Treasury is leading on the re-regulation of pension funds—so that we can unlock some of our pension trillions and put it into supporting our companies to grow here rather than go to NASDAQ.

Life Sciences: Private Investment

The UK’s life sciences sector is key to creating highly skilled jobs across the UK and cementing the UK’s role as a science superpower, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, a doughty champion of life sciences, has just set out. We have a life sciences vision, which sets out our ambition to develop a globally competitive investment ecosystem in the UK, and we will bring forward further measures to support the sector in the coming weeks. A great example is the life sciences investment programme, a £200 million initiative that is expected to attract at least double that in private investment.

Post pandemic, there has been a significant advance in attracting new pharma to the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the hugely significant partnership with Moderna as a sign of confidence in the United Kingdom? It will bring much-needed jobs and investment to the whole of the UK, and hopefully to Birmingham in particular.

Yes, I do of course join my hon. Friend in welcoming that investment. As he sets out, our goal is to ensure that the UK is the most attractive environment possible for life sciences investment, and we are doing a range of things to help achieve that. We can see exciting innovations coming into the UK as a result, including one I am very excited about that is due this year: greater personalisation in cancer drugs.

It is a delight to see the right hon. Lady in her new position. As a previous member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, at least she will know something about science.

I would like to believe the story that is being told about this country being a life sciences superpower, but I am sure the right hon. Lady will have noted the comments in January of Kate Bingham, the chair of the vaccine taskforce. She said that the lessons from that taskforce had not been learned, and that this country was falling behind. She gave evidence of AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline investing outside this country because civil servants had not learned those lessons and had created a hostile environment for such companies.

I can understand that point, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Kate Bingham for her past work on the vaccine taskforce. We have created the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology so that we can drive forward science, and life sciences as part of that, as a force for good. More on this agenda will be set out in the coming weeks, because we have the opportunity to continue to ensure the UK’s leadership on it. That is my priority and that of all of my team.

Commercialisation of Research: North-east England

4. What steps she is taking to support the commercialisation of science and technology research in the north-east. (904749)

Having worked on coalfield regeneration in the north-east, I am delighted to report that it is becoming a science and technology powerhouse economy in the UK. I have been up three times since taking on this role, particularly to see NETPark, the extraordinary north-east technology park, whose third phase of expansion has now been announced. We put £5 million into helping it grow, and world-class companies such as Kromek are now there. We have also put £5 million into the Northern Accelerator in collaboration with six north-east universities, and we have nine Catapult hubs in the north-east. Let us say it loud and clear: the north-east is building the new economy of tomorrow.

Led by Durham University, the Northern Accelerator has invested more than £100 million in partner university spin-outs in the past five years, bringing skilled jobs and opportunities to my constituents and across the region, but if the Minister is really serious about levelling up Durham, can he explain why the north-east receives just 4% of Research England’s budget and six times less money than London?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s leadership on this issue, because it is really important. Traditionally, our research funding follows excellence, and that is why, say, Northumbria University has shot up the league tables in the last few years from 42nd to 16th—it is knocking on the door of the Russell Group—and the northern universities are delivering increasingly excellent science. But there is something else. Last year there was £50 billion-worth of private investment in research and development, which is matching the public investment, and as we go to £20 billion of public R&D, a wave of private money will start to come into the north-east. The answer to her question is that this is about building the applied science into the industries of tomorrow, which the north-east is doing.

Does the Minister agree that the Catapult centres in the north-east, as well as the manufacturing technology centre in my constituency, are the way forward in commercialising some of the great ideas that are coming from the academic world?

Yes, I absolutely agree. That is why we have put £1.9 billion into the Catapult network—our network for deep industrial collaboration with our universities. In the north-east, we have the offshore renewables Catapult in Blyth, the digital Catapult in Sunderland and the satellite applications Catapult in Durham. This is a deep investment in the north-east economy of tomorrow.

One of the companies based in NETPark is Pragmatic Semiconductor, which is innovating chip production. It has indicated that it would consider moving its operations overseas if the UK fails to produce a semiconductor strategy that funds and supports chip production. We have been asking for this strategy for years now, so can the Minister assure the House not only that the strategy is imminent and will be published very shortly, but that it will properly fund and support companies such as Pragmatic?

Yes. The Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), has already met the company concerned, and in a matter of days we will be setting out the semiconductor strategy, which will answer exactly the question that the hon. Lady has raised.

Artificial Intelligence Technologies: Regulation

Artificial intelligence plays a vital role in our economy and society, from helping doctors to identify cancers faster to powering smart devices and driverless cars. We recognise the need to act not only to unlock the opportunities but to address the potential risks of this technology. Our White Paper articulates what the responsible development and use of AI should look like, supporting innovation while protecting people so that businesses, consumers and the wider economy can all benefit.

When advances in medical technology—around genetic engineering, for example—raise sensitive issues, we have debates on medical ethics, we adapt legislation and we put in place robust regulation and oversight. The explosion in AI potentially poses the same level of moral dilemma and is open to criminal use for fraud or impersonation and by malign players such as the Chinese Government, for example. As leaders in AI, what should the UK be doing to balance safety with opportunity and innovation?

I recognise the profound experience from which my hon. Friend speaks. We also recognise that many technologies can pose a risk when in the wrong hands. The UK is a global leader in AI, with a strategic advantage that places us at the forefront of these developments. Through UK leadership—at the OECD, the G7, the Council of Europe and more—we are promoting our vision for a global ecosystem that balances innovation and the use of AI, underpinned by our shared values of freedom, fairness and democracy. Our approach will be proportionate, pro-innovative and adaptable. Meanwhile, the integrated review refresh recognises the challenges that are posed by China.

With elections under way and a general election due next year, people are rightly concerned about the fake videos, images and audio being created by artificial intelligence. Can the Secretary of State confirm to the House what actions her Department is taking to protect the integrity of our democratic processes in that context?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement, and I look forward to debating these issues with him and others across the House. I can understand his concerns and the anxiety that sits behind his question. We have a fully developed regime of electoral law that already accounts for election offences such as false statements by candidates, but in addition to the existing regulations we are setting out an approach on AI that will look to regulators in different sectors to apply the correct guidance. We will also add a central co-ordinating function that will be able to seek out risks and deal with them flexibly, appropriately and proportionately.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. We can get a lot done in 10 weeks, in my experience, and I am sure she will do so.

At its best, Britain has been highly influential in setting international standards that combine confidence with security. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, that the UK should now seize the initiative and set out an international approach to standards in AI, so we can gain all the benefits that come from AI while making sure we do not suffer the harms attendant on it?

The short answer is yes. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s expertise, experience and encouragement as I begin my role. He is right that the UK has a global leadership position, and we rank in the global top three in many aspects of this question and others throughout science and technology. We will therefore seek a leadership role so any regulation of AI that may be needed reflects our values and strikes the correct balance.

One area in which our global leadership is a reality, not just rhetoric, is the creative industries. What assurance can the Government give to our music makers, writers and others that AI will be properly regulated to make sure their creative content is protected, and so we can maintain our global leadership?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which comes from his deep expertise in music and the creative industries more generally. I look forward to my conversations with the industry on this very subject this afternoon. The UK has world-leading copyright and intellectual property protections, and we know how important they are for the continued success of the creative industries. We want to maintain them, and they will therefore be a focus as we take this work forward.

Science and Technology Sector: International Competitiveness

6. What steps her Department is taking to support the international competitiveness of the science and technology sector. (904751)

10. What steps her Department is taking to support the international competitiveness of the science and technology sector. (904756)

The Government published the science and technology framework in March 2023, setting out our approach to making the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030. This will increase the UK’s strategic advantage in relation to other nations. As part of that, we have a 10-point plan, having identified five critical technologies, including AI, semiconductors and quantum, which we will prioritise to deliver the framework’s ambition.

The Minister will know that I have written to the Department about the future of Syngenta in Bracknell. Berkshire is the Silicon Valley of the Thames valley, and it is important that we do everything possible to maximise investment and job creation. Will the Minister please agree to visit Syngenta with me, and to do what is necessary to ensure that this is not another GSK moment?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work to encourage innovation, including at Syngenta. My colleague, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, has already met Syngenta, and one of us will follow up with my hon. Friend to see what more we can do to support innovation in the Bracknell area.

We have a truly world-class nuclear skillset in Fylde, with Springfields being home to the country’s only nuclear fuel-manufacturing facility and the National Nuclear Laboratory, which last year made a significant breakthrough in developing lead-212, a cancer-fighting medical isotope. There are real opportunities not only to preserve but to build on that success. What conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Prime Minister and other Ministers about ensuring our domestic nuclear capability is the go-to choice for use in the UK and about maximising opportunities abroad?

My hon. Friend always champions industry and innovation in his area. We recognise the UK’s significant capabilities in the nuclear fuel cycle and the benefit this provides to our energy security and to realising export opportunities. Through the nuclear fuel fund, the Government are investing in Springfields and other parts of the supply chain to further expand essential capabilities so we can realise benefits for the UK and abroad. The £6 million medical radionuclide innovation programme will also develop capability in the production of radionuclides for medicine.

The life sciences sector is very exercised by the unintended but very high levy being paid to the Government for branded medicines in the NHS. The risk is that investment and jobs will go elsewhere, so what is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that that does not happen?

We are negotiating hard on this. Obviously, the negotiations are sensitive at this time, but we are aware of the fact that we are ahead and we want to stay ahead in life sciences, which are part of our key technologies.

Biomedical sciences have been a success in my constituency, at Ulster University in Coleraine. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that success is replicated and the United Kingdom becomes genuinely a world leader in biomedical sciences?

Absolutely. We know we have a strong cluster there, and universities such as Ulster University are at the heart of that innovation. We will do exactly as the hon. Member said and make sure we can replicate as much of that clustering around the UK.

Broadband access is essential to UK competitiveness, yet Ofcom has revealed that just 220,000 of the 8 million households struggling to pay their internet bill have signed up to a discounted broadband package. When will the Government match Labour’s commitment to ensure that there is an industry-wide, mandatory and well-advertised social tariff for low-income families?

There has been a fourfold increase in people taking up social tariffs, but we know we have to do more to help people with the cost of living. That is why we lent in to the carriers in the first place and encouraged the introduction of social tariffs, but we will do more. We will work with the carriers to make sure that those tariffs get advertised well, so we can get better take-up.

Topical Questions

For its first three months, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has been harnessing the power of transformative science to grow a more innovative economy, with stronger businesses, better jobs and better lives for the British people. We have touched on AI and Pioneer. I can add that our £2.5 billion strategy for quantum tech will unlock its vast potential to the benefit of the British people.

As chair of the all-party group on crypto and digital assets, I have been hearing about the potential of blockchain technology for jobs of the future. It is important that these jobs are inclusive, so how will the Secretary of State ensure that people with disabilities, veterans and women have opportunities such as those to achieve their full potential?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady asked that question because, as she knows, I share her deep interest in the labour market and accessibility. I thank her for the work that her all-party group has done on the issue. This Government’s digital inclusion strategy has four principles: access; skills; motivation; and trust. They hold firm for blockchain and other technologies to ensure that no one is left behind.

Last year, during the Eurovision song contest, Russian agents attempted to interfere with the voting for Ukraine. This year, we are hosting the Eurovision song contest. What is the Department doing to ensure that the integrity of the voting will be maintained?

The Government are always aware that there are a number of possible threats to our systems and events. I am not able to discuss the details, but those at the National Cyber Security Centre are world experts at understanding attacks and providing an incident response for the most serious. We want to make sure that all organisations are aware, so we can keep that resilience in our voting process.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and wish the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) well in her maternity leave.

Three years on, the Tories have failed in their manifesto promise to associate to Horizon Europe, and Britain has paid the price in lost jobs and scientific research. Their plan B short-changes British scientists and they are fudging the figures in other ways. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, whereas Horizon funding was counted as international science spend, she is planning to count the same money as British science spend to meet her commitment to double the British science budget? [Interruption.]

I think I had better keep this brief. The answer, as the hon. Lady very well knows, is that we are hard at work negotiating our potential accession to Horizon. That is our preference, as I have made clear this morning. However, she is out of step with key voices in the sector. For example, the Russell Group says that our negotiations are a serious step forward and that the ambition of the proposals for Pioneer is welcome. More details will become clear as negotiations progress, but I cannot give a running commentary.

It seems that the Tory science superpower is actually just cooking the books. Ministers promised to increase science spend outside London and the south-east by a third while doubling it overall, so our regions continue to miss out. Now they are refusing to replace European regional development science funding, slashing £600 million from what should be our regional powerhouses. That is not levelling up—it is holding us back. The country knows it. Does the Secretary of State?

The hon. Lady is mischaracterising this very badly and in a way that does not help to command confidence in our shared mission to make science, innovation and technology the success that it needs to be for this country. She will have seen the presentation of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget, which made it clear just how seriously we take science in this country, and that level of ambition will continue.

Last month, Sir Patrick Vallance stepped down as the Government’s chief scientific adviser after five years in the role, in which Government investment in science has doubled. Most of all, he became a household name through his handling of covid and the leadership that he showed then. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Sir Patrick for all his service to the country and in welcoming his successor, Dame Angela McLean, and wishing her all the best in the role?

May I, as Science Minister on behalf of the Government, pay tribute to Sir Patrick and thank Dame Angela for taking on the role? Sir Patrick has been a stalwart servant for science and for this country during difficult times.