Lord Bassam: Post-Brexit participation in the EU's Horizon research programme is critical to our economic future
We currently receive €1 billion a year in grants from Horizon 2020. Unless we can secure a good research and development deal with the EU after Brexit, our influence will suffer, writes Lord Bassam.
Alarm bells have been ringing in the university sector for many months over the UK’s continuing participation in the EU wide Horizon research programme. This has been reflected in questions and debates in both the Lords and Commons.
The Withdrawal Agreement allows the UK to continue operating within Horizon 2020 until the end of the transition period, which is when the current programme ends. Speaking in January 2020, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Minister, Chris Skidmore MP stated, “When it comes to looking at Horizon Europe, its successor scheme, we want to explore an association that is as full as possible. We may be leaving the EU, but we will not be leaving our European research partnerships.” When asked, Prime Minister Johnson has said nothing will change, but other minister have been rather less reassuring.
UK researchers are very keen to negotiate associate membership with Horizon Europe which is set to have a €100bn budget over seven years. The UK is currently the second-biggest beneficiary of funding from Horizon 2020, getting about €1 billion a year in grants. In short, the UK has been getting far more back than we have been putting in. In the future we will have to pay to participate but the benefits we currently get are not guaranteed.
From a purely UK perspective, unless ministers can secure a deal similar to the current arrangement our university R&D future will suffer. The problem of course will be clear - however much financial support we put into the programme the UK will have lost the ability to influence the research programme outcomes with no voice at the table.
EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has said that for Horizon Europe membership, the same basic principles would apply to the UK as other third countries. This underlines the potential damage from our weakened position. For the UK beneficial participation will be reliant on the good nature of our former EU partners who frequently followed our lead.
In theory of course with a Government aim to double public spending on research and development there are reasons for optimism. The stated policy objective of raising spend to £18bn a year over the next five years and to raise the proportion of UK GDP invested in R&D from 1.7% to 2.4% by 2027 is encouraging. It suggests that somewhere in Government there is a realisation that the Horizon programme has brought big benefits.
The Government has in the past said it wants to have an industrial strategy that will enable growth and a better distribution of the benefits that will bring. As we leave the EU how close a partnership we can maintain with institutions such as the Horizon programme maybe critical to our long term economic future. How good an R&D deal we secure will be a determinant for future and shared prosperity. Labour has argued for continued participation in Horizon 2020 after Brexit for that very reason.
My questions to Ministers on the Horizon 2020 programme and beyond have yet to satisfy me that the enormity of what ‘getting BREXIT done’ means has struck home. Bland reassurances will no longer do. We need hard nosed commitments anything less will not satisfy our major research universities or the businesses that rely on them.
Lord Bassam of Brighton is a Labour Member of the House of Lords and Shadow Spokesperson for Further and Higher Education.