Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:51 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah Minister of State (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Higher Education), Minister of State (Education) 2:51 pm, 6th September 2018

I am extremely confident that there is scope for a win-win deal as far as science is concerned, and in my speech I will outline some of the reasons why.

To pick up a point that was made by Layla Moran, it is important to be conscious of the language here. The language of the texts that are used is the language of negotiation, but that necessarily does not reflect our desire and our ambition, because in a negotiation we make sure that we play our cards very closely and often as close to our chest as possible. We do that and so do our counter-parties in the EU.

I want to give the House the assurance, having spoken with Commissioner Moedas and fellow Ministers in various member states, that it is clear that there is an appetite on their side as well to continue the EU’s long- established relationship with the UK.

We want not only to confirm our relationship through a co-operative accord, but to build on that through exploring full association. We are taking steps to look at what it would take to achieve this, and, together with my officials, we are in constant dialogue with other association countries—my officials were in Switzerland last week to discuss the Swiss experience of going through the negotiations that we are going through—but as I have said in the past and to the Select Committee, association cannot come at any cost and any agreement must work for both the UK and the EU.

We must be sure that our priorities for the programme are recognised and understood. Those include ensuring that the programme remains focused on excellence. If there were desires to widen participation, for example, we would argue that that is what EU structural funds are for, rather than funds from the science and innovation programme.

We also want EU added value, and we want this to be open to the world, as outlined in our position paper, which was published in March to feed into the design process. We are also keen to ensure an appropriate financial contribution for associate countries, as well as a suitable degree of influence. As I said to fellow EU Science Ministers in May at the last competitiveness Council, it is important on the EU’s part that they do not take actions or steps that devalue being an associate member and partner as they think about their own positions in this negotiation.

A number of points were made, particularly by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, about the timetable on the regulations for Horizon. As he will be aware, the Commission published its draft proposal setting out the Horizon Europe programme on 7 June. This proposal is being discussed in detail in the Council, the working groups and the European Parliament. As such, the detail will not be set in stone until those institutions agree. This process may therefore continue beyond March 2019. Until that regulation is finalised, association to the programme will not be possible.

On why we do not have an early science deal, despite the fact that the desire and the will are there, it is difficult for us to associate with a programme that is still being discussed, negotiated and designed.

Quite rightly, a question was asked about what we mean by a level of influence. Until the draft Horizon Europe regulations are finalised, we would not want to comment on some of the specific details of the programme, but we would like the detail of specific elements to include participation, but also influence as associate members. We would want UK scientists, for example, to continue to play a role in technical discussions and exert soft influence in the process.

The Select Committee has been concerned about the level of urgency and focus as far as this negotiation is concerned—within Whitehall, but also within the EU. I give the House the assurance that we are playing a full and constructive role through discussions and the Council working groups on shaping the initiative, which will be supported through Horizon Europe.

We are determined that, while we are still members of the EU, we will use every lever of influence we have to help to shape the programme that we will want to associate with further down the line. The meetings started this week, and we will continue to play an active role until we are no longer a member state.

I am also aware that we are not the only ones who will be personally impacted by the results of these discussions. That is why I have asked the UK science base to inform the development of policy through the high-level group that I chair once a month. Its meetings provide an excellent forum for key members of the science and innovation community to offer their thoughts and concerns and have proven highly valuable.

We have also had two rounds of talks with the Commission. They were productive conversations, where the Commission agreed that science and innovation should be an area of co-operation between the EU and the UK. Through these mediums, we are ensuring that Horizon Europe and the Euratom research and training programme will provide value for money and be suitable for us to associate with. I can assure the House that an excellent team of professionals is working round the clock to make sure that science and research are not forgotten as we go through this important negotiation.

I am aware that this is not just about money; it is also about ensuring that the UK remains a partner of choice for international collaboration in the EU, but also on a global scale. The Select Committee will be aware that we have made significant progress in exploring new avenues with existing partners—signing agreements with the US and Canada, and publishing a joint UK-China strategy and, more recently, an agreement with the Israel Innovation Authority. Those achievements reflect our shared commitment to drive growth and tackle global challenges, and I want the UK to maximise all opportunities to continue to contribute to life-changing discoveries across the globe.

Mobility is absolutely crucial to success in this field, and I recognise that co-operation in this context is dependent on the UK’s ability to continue to attract global talent, including from the EU. With that in mind, I assure the House that we are carefully considering the options for our future immigration system. The Department is in regular discussions with the Home Office, and I have personally had discussions with the Home Secretary on how to support the movement of those engaged in science and research. We look forward to the publication of the Migration Advisory Committee’s report, and we will consider its conclusions and recommendations before taking decisions on the future immigration system.

We want to carry on bringing together brilliant talent and inventive minds from across the globe. We have shown that we are serious about this, with the recent introduction of the UK Research and Innovation-led scheme to support the temporary movement of scientists and researchers. We have also doubled the number of tier 1 exceptional talent visas for top global scientists to 2,000, but I note the concerns that were raised earlier in the debate. Removing doctors and nurses from the ambit of the tier 2 visa cap also provides more scope, but I take on board the points that have been made about friction.

Those changes will help to underpin the UK’s position as a hub for international collaboration and research. The £1 billion UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowships programme is also open to international scientists, and that is example of us putting our money where our mouth is in terms of attracting the brightest and the best.

Despite that progress, there are other things we need to think about and act on, one of which is ensuring the existence of an appropriate regulatory environment. On that front, continued co-operation is in the best interests of the EU and the UK. I understand that there are further questions about what the future looks like, and I want to reassure the House that I am actively engaging with my European counterparts and with colleagues across Whitehall to make sure that we secure the right outcome for the UK science base as we exit the EU.

We are working constructively with European colleagues to find a positive path towards a future relationship on science and innovation, but we are also being a responsible Government in preparing for every eventuality. On 23 August, we published a technical notice setting out the actions we will take to enable continued participation in Horizon 2020. First, we have given UK participants a guarantee that the Government will underwrite EU funding for all ongoing Horizon 2020 projects, as well as for successful bids submitted before exit. This guarantee applies even if participants are notified of their successful bid after exit. In July, the Chancellor announced an extension to the guarantee, which will now, additionally, fund UK organisations that successfully apply to calls open to third country participation after exit day and until the end of Horizon 2020.

I am aware of some recent press reports suggesting that a no deal scenario will threaten the ability of UK participants to co-ordinate Horizon 2020 projects. I am happy to clarify that UK entities would still be able to lead projects and carry out all usual co-ordination tasks as a third-country participant. The funding guarantee provided by the underwrite, and the extension that is in place if required, includes funding for co-ordination tasks if they are carried out by a UK co-ordinator. This would help ensure that the UK remains at the centre of collaborative science and research.

On the practical considerations, to deliver the underwrite guarantee, we will soon launch an online portal where UK participants can register their details. The portal is designed to make sure that our delivery partner, UK Research and Innovation, has the initial information it needs about current participants. I encourage all UK participants to register their details when the portal is available; this will help UKRI to keep them informed of what they need to do to receive their funding if the underwrite is required.

We are considering what other measures may be necessary to support research and innovation in a no deal scenario. This includes looking at how we continue to support excellence-based research such as that currently funded by the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which are not covered by third-country participation. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that a good deal, including an ambitious science and innovation accord, is the best outcome for both the UK and the EU, and this remains our top priority.