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Horizon Europe

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made about the United Kingdom’s participation in the Horizon Europe research programme.

My Lords, the Government remain ready to associate to Horizon Europe. We have entered into formal consultations with the EU, aiming to finalise the UK’s association. If the UK is unable to associate soon, we will be ready to introduce a comprehensive alternative programme that delivers many of the benefits of Horizon through international collaboration, end-to-end innovation, and a strong and attractive offer to encourage talented people to build their careers here in the UK.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I have asked this several times and there has been no progress whatever. We have not even had a Minister of Science during the crucial period of this summer. Does the Minister not realise that the uncertainty about this issue is running the very real risk of a brain drain? Surely the Minister wants to keep the best and the brightest in this country. Do the Government really want to sacrifice British science on the altar of the Northern Ireland protocol? Moreover, will the Minister accept that the Royal Society, major learned societies, Cancer Research UK and even this House’s own Science and Technology Committee make the point that a plan B is not the answer?

It is not the money but the irreparable damage to the collaboration between scientists around Europe and wider afield that is at risk. If the Government feel that there is a strong case for their position, perhaps the new Leader of the House could arrange a debate in government time to discuss this extremely important issue. We cannot call ourselves a science superpower unless we find a way to join Horizon Europe. What are the new Government going to do about this?

The noble Viscount is attacking the wrong target. We remain ready to associate to Horizon Europe at the earliest possible opportunity, in line with our agreement with the EU on the TCA. It is the EU that is preventing this agreement, which is why we have launched the dispute procedure. The noble Viscount is linking two entirely separate issues: the Northern Ireland protocol is a separate issue in a separate agreement. This is the EU’s fault; it is trying to hold science hostage under the banner of another issue. We remain ready to associate, so, however many times the noble Viscount asks me the question, he will get the same answer.

My Lords, the creation of ARIA was an admission of the bureaucratic nature of the current UKRI research funding system. The Government must adopt plan B, which would be regrettable, and introduce a new research funding stream for international research co-operation. Will they commit to streamlining UKRI procedures to make them as flexible and generous regarding direct costs and innovation, and as start-up friendly, as current European funding? Surely it cannot be the Government’s intention to increase red tape if we are unable to remain in Horizon Europe.

I very much agree with the noble Lord; it is very much not our intention to increase red tape. We are not ready to give up on Horizon yet, but it is obviously regrettable that the EU does not want to finalise our association and abide by the agreements that it entered into. We have launched the dispute procedure mechanism as a last try to persuade it of the benefits of this co-operation. We have excellent co-operation in other areas, such as energy, where we are helping the EU out in its hour of need. So we hope that it will see sense and abide by the agreement that it entered into, but, as the noble Lord said, we have a plan B if that proves not to be the case.

My Lords, the press release of 16 August announcing formal consultations with the EU uses much stronger words than the Minister has. It says:

“UK membership of Horizon Europe would be a win-win for both the UK and EU.”

Will this Government continue to support the words of the then Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss? Will they hold their nerve to achieve that goal, whatever temporary blockage there may be?

I stand completely by those words: it would be a win-win, and we want to do it. It would be to the benefit of the EU and the UK scientific community, and it is regrettable that the EU is refusing to finalise the agreement that it entered into.

My Lords, will my noble friend tell us why we cannot be associate members of the Horizon project, like Israel and Tunisia? Israel is not a member of the EU, and Tunisia is not even a member of the Eurovision Song Contest.

My noble friend makes a good point, as he often does. I am not sure that the Eurovision Song Contest is a sufficient precursor to Horizon Europe, but, to be serious, his point is very valid: other non-EU countries are associate members. We want to join; that was the agreement that we entered into, and I hope that the EU will see sense and abide by the agreement that it signed.

My Lords, surely the Government’s default programme is a second best. The Minister has said that it will deliver “many of the benefits” of the current programme. Where are the gaps, and what will not be delivered?

I am not sure that it is second best; it is an alternative. We have many scientific co-operation programmes with many other parts of the world; the EU is not the be-all and end-all of scientific co-operation. However, we think that there is a lot of value in Horizon Europe, which is why we agreed that we should join up. Of course, we are prepared to pay all the associated costs. That was the agreement that we entered into and we want to try to join, but we have a plan B if that proves impossible.

My Lords, for a change, I start by congratulating the Government for appointing one of the best candidates as CEO of ARIA—well done. One key issue of the Horizon Europe programme—apart from us becoming a full member, which should be our aim—is the collaborations we develop with other scientists worldwide. If we do not become part of Horizon Europe, there is no strategy in the plan B to increase collaboration internationally for our scientists.

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words about the CEO of ARIA and completely associate myself with them. He makes an important point: we have many collaborations with other scientists across the world. We think that this is very valuable and we want to build on it, but there are many scientific institutions in the EU with which we would also like to co-operate through association to Horizon. Of course, we will look at alternatives and will certainly work with alternatives in other parts of the world.

My Lords, subjects such as maths are crucial in ensuring that the UK achieves the Government’s ambition of becoming a science and technology superpower. The Minister has outlined a UK programme but that will not have the power of Horizon in collaborating internationally. How can we ensure that the UK remains attractive as a place for STEM experts to move to and work in, if our reputation and scientific capability suffer due to a lack of association with Horizon?

The main attraction of the UK in terms of collaboration with other parts of the world is our world-leading scientific community—which is why it happens now. We have a number of the best universities and researchers in the world. We are very proud that there are many people of other nationalities who want to come to the UK to continue their research programmes, and we have a considerable investment programme to enable that to happen. We want all that to continue and we will build on that, but we also want to work with our European colleagues, which is why we want to associate to Horizon Europe.

My Lords, we have a new Prime Minister and her words, when she was Foreign Secretary, have been quoted and my noble friend the Minister has endorsed them. We want to have a new beginning; we wish the new Prime Minister every possible success, for all our sakes. Would it not be a good idea if she were to write to the President of the European Commission reiterating what she said as Foreign Secretary and expressing the hope that we can build new relations with our former partners in the EU?

I am sure that the Prime Minister will be having many conversations with EU leaders and the European Commission. I am not sure that another letter would make a tremendous difference to the EU’s position on this; in my view, it is being incredibly unreasonable. We will continue to work with the EU. We have co-operation in a number of areas, so it is a win-win situation in which both sides benefit, and we want it to continue.

My Lords, innovation thrives on collaboration, as we have heard. Delaying resolving the relationship shows that the UK is not stepping up to face the challenges of the future. We must accept our responsibility in this relationship. We have heard that organisations such as the UK Dementia Research Institute are on course to become world leaders in the field, but they need the collaboration of the brightest and the best of Europe. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the uncertainty around the UK’s association with Horizon Europe is having on the UK’s research field?

There are some negative impacts: the current uncertainty is damaging for scientific co-operation. There are many researchers who want to get on with the job, and we have put in place transitional arrangements to help them in the meantime. We want all that co-operation to continue. The noble Baroness cites some good examples, and this is exactly why we want to associate to Horizon Europe. We call on the EU to do that and to finalise the agreements that it freely entered into and signed. I am sure that the House is united in wanting that to continue.