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Horizon Europe

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress has been made since the United Kingdom re-joined Horizon Europe.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Stansgate, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Our bespoke Horizon association deal means that UK researchers can now fully participate on the same terms as researchers from other associated countries. The Government want UK academics, researchers and businesses to seize the opportunities presented by participation in Horizon Europe. Yesterday, the Government continued our push to maximise UK participation with the launch of a campaign to encourage UK businesses, academics and researchers to apply to Horizon Europe.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for a very optimistic prospect, but as he knows, negotiations for the UK to rejoin Horizon were protracted and quite difficult. While there was great relief in the research community when they were eventually successful—he may have heard the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Dame Angela McLean talking about this on the “Today” programme this morning—there is ground for the UK to make up. Now that we have rejoined, is the Minister confident that UK-led research bids in this new round will attract their fair share of available funding? Is he aware of any difficulties there might be with visa arrangements for EU researchers who might want or need to come work in the UK? Can he also tell the House whether the Government are formally represented in EU ministerial discussions about Horizon Europe?

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions and will try to cover as much of the material as possible. First, I am pleased to say that we look forward to welcoming Commissioner Ivanova to the UK the week after next, when we will discuss many of these matters. In fact, I will be participating the following week at a ministerial meeting on Horizon in Brussels. It is historically exceptional for associate countries to attend at ministerial level, so I think it demonstrates good will on all sides. Meanwhile, we are pursuing a wide programme of activities to maximise participation. That includes supporting SMEs and others who would not traditionally have worked with Horizon, as well as a campaign launched yesterday and ministerial engagement. We remain optimistic, but, as I have said in this House, the damage has been done by protracted absence.

My Lords, there are seven years of uncertainty to recover from, but better late than never. I strongly welcome the Government’s pump-priming on behalf of applicants to Horizon Europe. In assessing the value for money of the programme, how important do the Government think it is that Switzerland also rejoins, and what efforts are they making to support Bern in that objective?

A range of other countries, as the noble Lord said, are also joining on an associate basis; Horizon is the largest programme of its type anywhere in the world. The total value of the programme is £80 billion over two years, and we consider that rejoining represents a significant opportunity for us following the uncertainty of our period of non-association. As to engagement with Bern, I am afraid that I do not have an answer for the noble Lord, but I will look into it; it sounds like a valuable contribution we could make.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, in his absence for persistently bringing the issue of Horizon Europe to your Lordships’ House. Today, obviously, we can be very glad that the UK has rejoined, and I declare my interest as a professor of European politics at Cambridge and as having previously received money from European Union research funding. Clearly, as an academic, I am delighted that we are back in, but how much is this blitz of information about rejoining Horizon Europe costing the Government and how far have we lost out by being an associate member and not a full member? As the Minister said, we are now treated like other associate members; what does that mean in practice?

I echo the noble Baroness’s remarks about the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. Being an associate member in practice allows us access to all Horizon calls from 2024 onwards, with the very small-in-volume exceptions of EIC funds or what the EU has determined to be strategically sensitive areas, including quantum. I should add that we and the EU have publicly committed to working towards opening even those small areas up, so we would have very full access to the Horizon programme.

My Lords, will the Minister accept welcome for the campaign launched by the Government today to catch up with what was lost? Does he recognise that many of these programmes are multiannual, spanning quite a period, and that it would therefore be a great help if the Government could make it clear that their intention is that we should continue to be an associate member of Horizon beyond the duration of the present programme?

Yes, indeed. I very much recognise the value of the Horizon programme. Of course, any Horizon programme beyond the current one does not exist yet, except conceptually in the minds of all the current participants, but obviously we would look very favourably at participating as and when its terms were made clear.

My Lords, until Brexit, it was clear that the United Kingdom was second only to the United States in research in science, engineering and medicine. Can the Minister be kind enough to tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the impact of the loss of the Horizon programme in terms of citations and publications?

As I have said in this House before, there is no doubt that our period of non-association with the Horizon programme did lasting damage. We have to focus now on repairing that damage. It is very difficult to put a number in currency on the value of that and I am not sure I would know where to begin. I absolutely acknowledge that the damage was real and is going to take a very conscious effort to fix.

My Lords, it is good that from 1 January 2024 we are now associate members of Horizon, with the benefits it will bring, including the citation levels, but the Treasury withdrew £1.6 billion of funding that was earmarked for research during the time when we were negotiating joining Horizon Europe, and I understand from a further report published recently that a further £1 billion was removed. Can the Minister confirm that that is not the case?

As is absolutely normal practice, money ring-fenced for a purpose to which it does not go is, in order to keep budgets taut and realistic, returned to the Treasury, but that in no way indicates an intention to diminish our spend on science and R&D. The Government remain committed to spending £20 billion a year on R&D by the 2024-25 spending review.

My Lords, what proportion of Horizon-funded projects are now led by UK research institutions compared to our previous well-known standing in the European research field?

We have only very recently reassociated to Horizon, so we will not know who bid under the Horizon 2024 programme, or who the leader is or who has been successful, for, on average, six to nine months between making the proposal and receiving word, but at that time I will keep this House up to date on that important question.

My Lords, today is World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day. Historically, EU Horizon research funding has been hugely valuable in supporting British scientists at our world-class biomedical institutions to collaborate with Asian, African, South American and European scientists to tackle neglected tropical diseases and diseases such as malaria. Can the Minister reassure the House that with our associate membership there will still be the possibility of funding those collaborative arrangements with the global South, with scientists in Africa, Asia and South America, in order to tackle these terrible neglected tropical diseases which threaten the most disadvantaged populations in the world but also our public health?

Yes, absolutely. I thank the noble Lord for bringing up such an important and interesting area of science. I can confirm that our associate membership of Horizon would give us access to any and all Horizon calls alongside any other EU member or associate member, provided they are not designated as strategically significant, which those tropical diseases would not be.