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Horizon 2020

Volume 801: debated on Monday 27 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to continue participation in the Horizon 2020 programme beyond the Brexit transition period.

My Lords, the terms of the withdrawal agreement mean that the UK will continue to participate in EU programmes financed by the 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework until their closure. UK scientists, researchers and businesses can continue to participate in these programmes and receive EU grant funding until the end of 2020 and for the lifetime of individual projects.

My Lords, I am slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response. Given the Government’s correct ambition to double R&D spend by 2027, in a post-Brexit UK would he agree that we should seek an association agreement with Horizon Europe? Given that the withdrawal agreement has been signed, can he outline the negotiation timetable for our participation in the Horizon programme so that universities can begin to plan research for 2021 and beyond?

The noble Lord makes an interesting point. He will recall that when Horizon 2020 was being negotiated this time seven years ago a significant effort was made by the EU to cut the funding in order to put more money into agriculture. One of my colleagues, Vicky Ford, now an MP, managed to stop that cut being so significant. We are at that delicate stage now. Horizon Europe has not yet been determined and we cannot therefore be sure exactly what it will look like or how we can engage with it until the EU has completed those operations.

My Lords, the Minister has made clear the position on Horizon 2020, but the position on Horizon Europe is exercising the minds of researchers in this country. The proposed budget is about €100 billion. Can the Minister guarantee that, whether or not we are inside that deal, research organisations in this country which would have benefited will continue to benefit by at least as much as the share they would have got from Horizon Europe?

The important thing to stress is that the EU has not yet determined Horizon Europe and the most important sticking point remains the budget. It is the Government’s commitment to have an association agreement to ensure that scientists and all within that area going forward are able to participate fully and are able to get full value for money, just as the EU will get full value from us through such an association agreement.

My Lords, my noble friend may be anticipating that Horizon Europe’s budget, as it is discussed in the year ahead of us, may well be less than €100 billion. There are many stories suggesting that it will be in the region of €88 billion to €90 billion. The question then is whether in the course of the months ahead we should be seeking participation in Horizon Europe on the basis that the funds that we provide—I think we have provided about 11% of the funds of Horizon 2020—would be additional to what the European Union commits from its own budget, thereby getting Horizon Europe potentially back to €100 billion in total.

My noble friend is absolutely right. We have been a vital participant in the Horizon programmes and their predecessor framework programmes. There is no doubt that going forward our participation will make them work better, and the negotiations must therefore deliver against that objective.

My Lords, will the Minister give a really clear assurance that, when the negotiations on the next relationship between the UK and the EU start in March, the British Government will put on the table their desire to co-operate with the Horizon programme and their proposals for doing so? The new programme may not yet have been funded but you can bet it has been negotiated.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. We have been very clear thus far that we wish to participate going forward. The nature of the association agreement will be subject to those ongoing negotiations, but for scientists on both sides of the channel and of the Irish Sea, our collaboration is as vital now as it has ever been.

My Lords, Britain pays about 11% into this programme but it gets a lot more out. How much extra benefit is derived from the extra resources that we get from Europe?

The noble Lord is right. The fund is based on excellence. British scientists are excellent and we therefore get significant benefit from the programme. We collaborate at the highest possible level and are able to deliver science at the highest possible level, and that is therefore a benefit to our university system and more broadly. It is very difficult to quantify but I do not think that there is a single scientist in our universities who would not applaud and recognise that.

My Lords, British scientists are indeed excellent but that is partly because they can collaborate with European scientists. What assurances can the noble Lord give that those collaborations will continue after we leave the EU?

It is difficult to comment on specific collaborations but I stress that British scientists and academics and our university system are all excellent. Collaboration is therefore of mutual benefit to both sides of this issue.

My Lords, to the best of my understanding, British scientists and institutions frequently lead on these collaborations. There has been a significant concern that, although those institutions might be allowed to participate in the future, their opportunities to lead will be greatly diminished. That means that leading scientists who always want to be part of the lead group will seek other opportunities.

I always believe that those best equipped to lead should lead, whether that be within the EU or across the wider globe. There has been a decline in our participation, and that is a measure of what we have been going through of late, but the excellence remains and the leadership should remain with the excellent.

Has my noble friend noticed that a lot of the perfectly reasonable questions that he has addressed have been trying to second-guess what will happen in the negotiations. Surely, now that we are leaving the EU, we will be able to co-operate with our friends and neighbours across the channel on all these programmes, including Horizon.

This Government intend to continue with an association agreement. Science is vital and it must therefore be worked on with the best possible collaboration. That is our ambition. It is what we will seek to deliver in the negotiations and we will be judged accordingly.

Quite rightly, we hear a lot about the importance of collaboration with our European friends. I have not done the calculation but there must be about 150 countries that are not within the European Union. How do we manage to collaborate on scientific and other matters with those countries?

The noble Lord is correct. In a number of areas the UK is a global leader; in others it is the US. We have a number of the leading journals on science and other subjects. In terms of excellence, more universities in the top 20 are in Scotland than in the rest of the EU. We are an excellent nation and we have excellent universities, and we are collaborating across a wide range of the globe.

My Lords, one reason for our strong science base is our life sciences. The Minister will know that part of that depends on the interrelationship with the pharmaceutical industry and the investment that it puts into R&D. If we are to be non-aligned with the EU, many new drug developments in the UK will be at risk, because no company will want a licence in the UK before obtaining a European licence. Is that being factored into the discussions in relation to the European Medicines Agency and our own MHRA?