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Medical Research Charities

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of their engagement with medical research charities regarding (1) their negotiations for association with Horizon Europe, and (2) the alternative Pioneer programme.

We are moving forward with discussions on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe; that is our preference. We will continue to engage with representatives across the sector, including medical research charities, as these discussions progress. We have engaged widely with the sector on association and Pioneer, including with medical research charities, and we continue to welcome thoughts on the proposals laid out in the Pioneer prospectus.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am pleased that he recognises the vital contribution made by charity-funded medical research to the UK’s excellent R&D reputation. I am grateful for the briefings we have had from various charities, including the British Heart Foundation, which have all reinforced that. They point out the huge progress that has been made—for example, in cardiovascular research—in the past few years, which has been made possible because of the collaboration and recruitment of scientists, technicians and researchers, both within Europe and around the world. However, it is clear that there is still uncertainty about the degree to which the Government are communicating with or are at least involving those charities in the work they are doing and the negotiations. Surely the Minister accepts that it would be sensible—indeed, essential—for them to have a seat at the table in the negotiations and in looking at the opportunities available from both programmes.

DSIT meets medical research charities on a quarterly basis through the DSIT charities forum. That brings together government representatives with a broad range of member charities from the Association of Medical Research Charities—AMRC—including the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK, as well as smaller charities for topic-specific discussions, which includes the Horizon or Pioneer programmes. In addition, DSIT meets policy officials from AMRC on a monthly basis.

My Lords, if the UK is readmitted but participation in the programme falls to drastically low levels, provisions would allow the UK to withdraw. Can the Minister say what that level would be? Does he feel that there is any danger that this might happen due to the science sector’s lack of confidence in the Government’s long-term commitment to Horizon?

I cannot, of course, comment on ongoing negotiations for fear of affecting their outcome against us. I recognise the concern about the amount of time being taken, but the Government are, as the noble Baroness says, pursuing a policy of becoming a science and technology superpower by 2030. In the Government’s view, an excellent way to further that objective is to reassociate with the Horizon programme but on terms that are fair and appropriate for our sector stakeholders. Failing that, we will opt for our bold and ambitious alternative, Pioneer.

My Lords, it has now been 128 weeks of uncertainty, delay and broken promises since the Government took us out of the world’s biggest and most prestigious science fund, Horizon Europe. Will the Minister confirm or deny that part of the continued delay to the UK’s re-entry into the programme has been caused by a demand for a fee reduction? Does he agree that our continued exclusion from the scheme is damaging research and development collaborations across the EU that have benefited the UK in the past?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. The first thing to remind the House is that it was not a decision of the UK Government not to be associated with the Horizon programme. Following the trade and co-operation agreement—of which association to Horizon was a part—that association was withdrawn from the United Kingdom. Beyond that, as I say, I cannot comment on the forces at work behind individual negotiation points, but I recognise the frustration and concern that result from the lengthy period of negotiations.

My Lords, on 19 June, UKRI and DSIT launched a search for ideas that were “bold and ambitious”—a phrase the Minister used just now—and

“transformative ideas for moonshots across the research and innovation landscape”.

That would apparently be delivered by the Pioneer programme in the event that we do not sign up to Horizon. Can the Minister confirm how much will be invested in those moonshot programmes? Can he also confirm that in the event that we sign up to Horizon, those projects will still be funded?

The funding for the Pioneer programme would end up being the same as the funding that would be made available were we to join the Horizon programme, as is our preference. As to individual elements within the Pioneer programme, I cannot comment on their size right now because the programme continues to be based on huge input, which we greatly welcome, from all aspects of the sector.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my registered interests. Is the Minister able to explain how the funding that had originally been allocated to the Horizon programme and has not been spent on that programme to date has been applied, and can he confirm that the residual funds that have not been applied will be applied to drive the science agenda in our country?

As is normal practice in order to keep budgets taut and realistic, funding that was not spent on the Horizon programme due to our non-association was returned to the Treasury. However, should we—as is the Government’s preference—be able to associate with Horizon, those funds would contribute to Horizon.

My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement has 24 committees, one of which is on the association with Union programmes. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that committee is actively involved in discussing Horizon. Secondly, the Horizon programme and our non-association with it is a matter of mutual harm to both sides, because there is a lack of things. A sense of urgency is important here, and I regret that I do not feel that a sense of urgency is coming from His Majesty’s Government. I remind everyone that the Windsor Framework surfaced on 27 February, which is jolly nearly four months ago. This is simply a discussion about money and about the premium being paid to join the Horizon programme. It seems to me that a one-issue discussion should take less than four months.

As I say, I recognise the concern and frustration about the length of time. However, I do not recognise the characterisation that it is due purely to one participant in the negotiations foot-dragging. It is inevitably a complex negotiation with a number of moving parts, on which, I am afraid, I am unable to comment for fear of prejudicing the outcome of the negotiations.

My Lords, the Minister talks about, for example, Cancer Research UK, which is the biggest independent funder of research—I think that two years ago it was investing just under £450 million. It is on record as saying that joining Horizon Europe offers

“unparalleled opportunities for the UK to foster international collaborations”.

Will the Minister take that back to the department in the hope of incentivising the discussions, which we know are taking place and to which he just referred? The Government have to make a decision, and it is not in the best interests of science in the UK for them not to do so.

Yes, indeed, I will be very happy to take that back. As I say, for the Government, the preferred outcome of the negotiations is to associate with Horizon on fair and appropriate terms.

In response to the question from my noble friend, the Minister was reasonably confident that we would move forward, but subject to “fair and appropriate terms”. Would he care to define to the House a little more clearly what those are?

At the risk of testing the House’s patience, I cannot describe what our negotiating goals are for fear of prejudicing the outcome of the negotiations.

In the light of comments from across the House, what progress does the Minister think we are making towards us becoming a global science superpower, and when does he think we might actually become such a thing? [Laughter.]

I regret hearing the laughter at the question. We are a country with 1% of the world’s population, over 6% of the world’s published academic studies, and over 13% of the most highly cited academic studies in the world. I think I am right in saying that that makes us third globally, second in the OECD and first in Europe.