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Horizon Europe

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what financial assessment they have made of the benefits to the United Kingdom’s economy arising from scientific discoveries or advances achieved as a result of the United Kingdom’s former participation in Horizon Europe.

We are moving forward with discussions on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe. That is our preference, but our participation must work for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers. If we are not able to secure association on fair and appropriate terms, we will implement Pioneer, our bold and ambitious alternative. Our participation in previous European programmes had positive employment and commercial effects, hence our position on Horizon Europe and our development of Pioneer as an alternative.

Since my noble friend is obviously struggling to answer the question and quantify the benefits to the economy of our former participation in Horizon Europe, can he explain why the Government appear to be so keen to rejoin? If they are going to rejoin, will he consider at least getting an opt-out from clusters 2 and 3 of Pillar 2, which fund social sciences research, from which I really cannot see any advantage at all to the working people of this country, who are being expected to pay for them?

I thank my noble friend for the question. The Government really do see benefit in our past and, I hope, future association to Horizon and its predecessor programmes. Analysis of our participation as a member state in the previous framework programmes found that UK participants received approximately €7 billion in framework programme 7. That represented 15.4% of the total awarded, which exceeded by 16% what would have been anticipated on the basis purely of our GDP share. As regards the pillars we would join, I note that under the terms of the TCA, we opted out from the Pillar 3 equity fund but otherwise elected to join all the remaining pillars, and those are the terms under which we continue to seek association today.

Does the Minister accept that the main benefit that universities see in Horizon is the potential to build close and lasting partnerships with institutions on the continent, for which there can be no domestic substitute? It is from those partnerships that the benefits about which the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, inquired flow in great measure.

Indeed, and the Government recognise very strongly the benefits of collaboration not merely with the EU 27 but globally. The range of benefits includes not just academic benefits but the ability to build our R&D capacity; employment effects; commercial benefits, of course; and leveraging in additional investments as a result of the research.

My Lords, do His Majesty’s Government have any other metric of assessing the benefits of membership of Horizon Europe beyond the purely financial that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, is looking at? Already, we have heard about patterns of co-operation. At this point, I was going to declare my interests as stated in the register, but I might just point out that I am a professor of European politics, which fits into social sciences, so I do believe that co-operation can be very beneficial.

Indeed. As the specific analysis for association to the Horizon Europe programme is currently being negotiated, I cannot comment on what the analysis is there. I can say that, going back to framework programme 7, the predecessor programme to Horizon, almost 91% of UK participants stated that their project would not have gone ahead had they not participated in FP7. That equates to roughly 41,000 partnerships at risk of never having happened and 29,000 collaborations with non-UK participants potentially lost.

My Lords, Horizon framework programmes and Horizon 2020 programmes contributed enormously, as the Minister just said, to research and development in the United Kingdom. But coming back to social sciences and humanities, the figure quoted was over £600 million of EU funding, particularly to Oxford University. So it does have economic benefits.

The benefits of Horizon are frequently asserted but very rarely demonstrated. Often those assertions come from those who have a vested interest, having been recipients under the old system, as indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was just honest enough to admit in the form in which she put her question. Will my noble friend the Minister tell me whether the Government have done any cost-benefit analysis of Britain joining on the terms the EU is demanding?

Indeed. As all noble Lords would expect, a very detailed and comprehensive value analysis has taken place as part of the current ongoing negotiations to associate with the Horizon programme. In the words of the Chancellor yesterday, the negotiations have reached a point that is “crunchy”, and for that reason, I cannot discuss any of the details of our negotiating position, not least our evaluation of various outcomes.

My Lords, if we are going to quote important people in relation to this debate—and I commend the noble Lord for asking this Question, although I disagree with him—can I point out that the president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, is on record as saying that people are leaving Britain to do research elsewhere or not coming to Britain because we are not members of Horizon Europe? The Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Sir Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute, has said that every month that goes by without an agreement is deeply damaging both to science and to the country. Does the Minister agree, and if so, what are the Government doing about it and when will they make a decision?

As I have said, the Government’s preferred position is to associate to the Horizon programme. As to what we are doing about it, we are negotiating purposefully with the EU to bring that about. However, that association has to take place on fair and appropriate terms. Should we not be able to secure those fair and appropriate terms, we will implement Pioneer, our bold and ambitious alternative.

Can my noble friend the Minister reassure us that the Government see that there is a world beyond white Europe—that there is much innovation across the world, not just in the EU? While of course we want to be members of the Horizon scheme, we should not enter at any price. An example I would give is that when I was an academic, we got money from the Jean Monnet fund, and it insisted that we rename our international business course “European business”—a small European view of the world, when we should be looking globally.

I thank my noble friend for making that important point. When talking about Horizon, we often slip into the language of concerning ourselves only with collaborations with the universities of Europe. Nothing could be further from good scientific practice or, indeed, from anybody’s intention.

We recognise the Government’s ongoing safety net for researchers in the absence of the Horizon programme. It is welcome. However, it is the continuing uncertainty that has led to the drop-off in participation and, as we have heard, projects moving overseas. As a member between 2014 and 2020, the UK received a disproportionately beneficial amount of funding, leading to ready-made routes and established funding streams into a range of projects, covering heritage, AIDS vaccines, autonomous vehicles, aerospace manufacturing, and noise pollution. This is urgent. When can we end this uncertainty? Can we have a clear route to the decision-making process that is needed?

My Lords, I would like nothing more than to give a definitive date by which a decision will be made one way or the other. The negotiations are ongoing and at a mature stage, with purpose on both sides. More than that I cannot say for fear of prejudicing their outcome.

My Lords, it is now four months and a day. The urgency has been rather absent in the various remarks of the Government. I support the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake. This is a straight argument about money, and if one tries to amortise this amount of money over one or one-and-a-bit Horizons, you come up with a difficult analysis, where it looks very expensive. If you try to amortise it over several Horizons, you suddenly realise—this applies to both parties in this negotiation—that one is arguing about a row of beans. Can the Minister give us some comfort at least that the British side is seeking to amortise the costs involved over a number of Horizons and therefore is beginning to see that this is not a very large amount of money?

Yes, I very much take the point that scientific research does not take place over intervals of seven years but is a long-term undertaking and an important endeavour. Certainly, the Government’s thinking is very much aligned with that. I hope that my words can convey some of our sense of urgency but in these negotiations, we cannot set firm deadlines.