Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 1:05 pm, 6th September 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman. In a sense, these reports are all about seeking to ensure that collaboration does continue beyond March next year, and I of course completely accept that fact about collaboration, not just across Europe, but across the world.

My Committee has produced two reports this year looking at the impact of Brexit on science and innovation. They build on work undertaken by my two predecessor Committee Chairs and their Committees in the 2015 Parliament. One of those Chairs was Stephen Metcalfe, who continues to be a member of the Science and Technology Committee. I pay tribute to him for his work and note that he is in his seat for this debate. The first of this year’s two reports, as referenced on the Order Paper, was published in March following a summit with more than 50 representatives of the science and innovation community. We are grateful for the community’s willingness both to respond quickly to our call for evidence and to participate in that event.

The report recognises the current strength of British science on the world stage and the Government’s commitment to science and research through a range of policies. For instance, the Government have made science a key pillar of the industrial strategy, and they have also committed to increase R&D spending further to the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Those commitments are very welcome, but the shadow of whether the UK will participate in all aspects of EU schemes such as Horizon 2020 and its successor programme after March 2019 looms large. Whatever form of Brexit we end up with, there is a need to make sure that the international standing of UK research is protected, and indeed strengthened, following March next year.

A key recommendation of our report is that the Government should explicitly commit to seeking associated country status for Horizon 2020’s successor programme, now known as Horizon Europe. The UK has received €4.73 billion from Horizon 2020 to date, and Horizon Europe is set to be a huge increase in ambition, and the pot of money available will total €100 billion from 2021 to 2027.

Since our report, the Government’s no deal technical note on Horizon 2020 funding has underlined the importance of such close association. The note confirms that, without a deal that secures associated country status, we will not be eligible to participate in some very important elements of Horizon 2020 during its remaining years, including European Research Council funds. The campaign group Scientists for EU has calculated that we stand to lose around £0.5 billion each year in the event of no deal by not being eligible to access those funds, although it is important to say that presumably we would not be paying in during that period either.

The plans for Horizon Europe set out an enhanced role for third countries—in other words, countries outside the EU—in the new scheme when Horizon 2020 has run its course. The Government have played their part in shaping the programme for Horizon Europe, but the Minister has said that participation is contingent on three things.

First, it is contingent on the programme’s continued focus on excellence. I think we have reassurance, but it would be helpful if the Minister updated us. Secondly, it is contingent on agreeing a suitable participation fee. The Minister has said that he supports participation but “not at any price”. Thirdly, it is contingent on securing a suitable level of influence on the programme.

The last point remains a challenging issue. We are likely to be one of the biggest contributors to the programme if we do participate, but the proposed rules for Horizon Europe prevent third countries from having “decisional powers” over the programme. In financial terms, it appears that we will not be allowed to get more out than we put in, as we have been able to do in the past.

The Minister will need to be able to sell the idea of participation to the Treasury, which on the face of it is made more challenging by there being no voting rights, according to the EU’s current position. On the other hand, formal voting is rarely, if ever, necessary, and there may be other ways in which the UK could have influence over the programme if the EU will not shift on formal voting rights. Either way, the science community takes the view that striking an agreement is vital, as this international funding programme is so important and so highly regarded.

Incidentally, I also urge the EU negotiators to demonstrate some flexibility, because if the UK is to be one of the largest contributors to the programme, it does not seem unreasonable that we should be given decision-making powers as a third country.