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Horizon Europe

Volume 815: debated on Monday 18 October 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what caused the delay to the United Kingdom’s application to join the Horizon Europe research programme; and when they expect research institutes to be able to bid for new project funding.

The UK and the EU agreed the terms for our association to Horizon Europe under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The UK stands ready to formalise our participation, but there have been persistent delays from the EU. I can assure the noble Lord that UK entities are already eligible to apply ahead of us formally associating, and we encourage UK researchers to take advantage of this opportunity.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, friends who are involved in this in Brussels and the UK say that there are delays on both sides. I believe that there are protocols which still need to be adopted by a joint EU-UK committee, which is responsible for the UK’s participation in these programmes. Could the Minister confirm this? Does this committee exist and has it met? When do we expect it to reach decisions so that the money can start being spent?

I assure the noble Lord that the delays are not coming from our side. The TCA was ratified. It required pieces of EU programmes legislation to be in force, which is why we did not join Horizon Europe instantly when we signed the TCA last December. Iceland, Norway and Ukraine have all joined the programme recently but there is no such committee yet in existence and this Government continue to apply pressure to the EU Commissioner about this.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as so many of the issues and opportunities we face are global in nature, we need to look to all our international partners and friends across Europe and the Commonwealth and right around the world for research connections and collaborations? International research collaboration is the brightest, best and most transformative piece of soft power.

I thank my noble friend for his—as usual—to the point question. The Government are committed to making the UK a global science and research superpower. We are a partner for choice for many world-leading and rapidly growing R&I nations. Through our interactions with other Governments, we know that there is significant and growing demand from world leaders such as the US and Japan to commit more funding to collaborative research. I could point my noble friend and the House to various examples, including the £12 million UK-Japanese LongOps project to help faster and safer decommissioning at Fukushima; the £20 million UK-US collaboration on the Thwaites Glacier; and the New Variant Assessment Platform, which is undertaking Covid-19 genomic sequencing at Porton Down for the whole world.

My Lords, in his speech in Lisbon last week, the noble Lord, Lord Frost, simply stated flatly that the UK’s request for participation in the Horizon programme had been blocked. That seems slightly at variance with what the noble Baroness said in her original Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Which is the authorised version, and if it is blocked, what are the Government doing to get it unblocked? Is it anything to do with other issues which are not going so well between the UK and the EU?

My Lords, the authorised version is that the delay is not coming from our side. The UK’s participation in the Union programme under the TCA and the Northern Ireland protocol—the issue to which he alludes—are completely separate issues. We see no legal or practical reasons why we should not be able to formalise our participation swiftly. The UK-EU joint declaration published alongside the TCA set out both parties’ intention to formalise UK association at the earliest opportunity, and we stand ready to implement that agreement. It is regrettable that, as regards the negotiations with Switzerland, Commissioner Gabriel has brought in other issues to delay its entry into the same programmes, notably in relation to the EU cohesion programmes which the EU wish Switzerland to pay for before it is allowed to enter Horizon.

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s Question, just a couple of weeks ago the European University Association said:

“The lengthy process of associating the UK to Horizon Europe … is creating unnecessary insecurity within the European knowledge community, and this insecurity threatens plans for scientific cooperation—with negative consequences for both the EU and the UK.”

Does the Minister agree with that assessment?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that the delay is causing unnecessary insecurity within the entire European knowledge community, not just in the UK. Our participation in Horizon Europe will support these continued partnerships between UK and European research and science experts, which is a win-win for all parties, not just in Europe and the UK but globally as well.

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, the Minister has pointed out that these are important collaborative activities. Could she say what the Government are planning to do, in addition to engaging in funding with Horizon Europe, about ensuring mobility for academics, which is also part of the European research framework? I declare my interests as laid out in the register.

The noble Baroness is right to bring up mobility. We are committed to making the UK the most attractive destination in the world for scientists, researchers and innovators. The global talent visa achieves this. Through the Horizon Europe programme, UK research organisations and higher education institutions can continue to participate in world-leading programmes. There is no restriction on British academics travelling to Europe to access Horizon grants, and through the Turing scheme the UK Government are also providing funding for more than 40,000 participants from schools, colleges and universities to study and work across the globe during the 2021-22 academic year.

Will my noble friend join me in congratulating the University of York on the excellent work it is doing for BioYorkshire? Will she in turn use her good offices to ensure continuity of funding for the five missions agreed at COP 25, in particular those covering soils and oceans, to ensure that our global reputation is maintained?

I can indeed join my noble friend in congratulating the university on its work and confirm that Horizon’s five missions—cancer, soils, climate change, oceans and cities—are all issues with which we wholeheartedly agree and on which we are furthering research. We have always been clear that our priority is to support the UK’s R&D sector, and we will continue to do that in all future scenarios.

I declare my interests as set out in the register. The EU Research Commissioner recently told MEPs that, while British researchers’ participation in the current scheme is assured,

“For the next programming period, we need a little bit more time, a little bit more information to evaluate all this in a more in depth way.”

How do the Government interpret those remarks and, given that other agreements with the EU are now being revisited, what reassurances can she give the research community that the commitment to Horizon Europe will not be withdrawn or substantially renegotiated?

Any remarks that increase uncertainty among the research and knowledge community are obviously unhelpful. The UK’s participation in Union programmes under the TCA and Northern Ireland protocol are separate issues. We have negotiated those issues and provided all the information. I can but reaffirm that the delays are not coming from our side, and we see them as distinctly unhelpful for all concerned.

My Lords, despite the delays, can my noble friend confirm that the content matter of the health cluster of Pillar 2 remains a vital area of research for the UK—namely, to promote and protect human health and well-being—as that is exactly what was envisaged with the new centre for health promotion announced by the Prime Minister in March of this year? Does she agree that that remains a priority area for far-reaching research here in the UK, so that we help people lead active and healthy lives and are better able to prevent and fight illnesses?

My noble friend is right to concentrate on the health benefits of many of the Horizon Europe projects. Over its lifetime, we expect the Commission to set aside more than €8 billion for the health research cluster, to which UK entities will be able to apply. One example may be the Joint Programming Initiative on Microbial Resistance, a collaboration of 28 countries across the globe tackling that resistance. The UK’s association to Horizon Europe will enable the UK to continue to collaborate with European partners to tackle health-related global challenges, to the benefit of everyone.