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The George Freeman interview: "It would be extraordinary" if a deal on Horizon can't be negotiated

9 min read

George Freeman says that the UK is not yet a science superpower. But by collaborating with the EU and embracing artificial intelligence, the minister for science, innovation and technology is striving to meet this ambition. He tells Sophie Church that the UK must play to its strengths to succeed. Photography by Jack Lawson

When George Freeman was a boy, he went on a school trip to Parliament. Filing through the Chamber, he was told by his teacher not to touch anything and not to sit down. But as he walked past the despatch box and spotted its worn edges, he wondered why, if no one was allowed to touch anything, that would be the case. 

“I worked out at some point why: it was because people are under pressure when they are answering questions,” he says. “I remember looking and thinking, as a child of a then pretty unhappy and broken home wondering if anyone was going to take some responsibility – that there is a place where the nation takes responsibility… I found that an incredibly powerful idea, and I think it still is.”

Today, sitting in his lofty office on Parliament Street, now the Conservative MP for Mid-Norfolk and a government minister for science, research and innovation, Freeman, 55, has plenty on his mind. But he found time to talk with The House about just some of the opportunities in the field of innovation: how to increase it in the NHS; the impact of AI; how we can work with Europe; the United King’s semiconductor strategy, and more.

George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)
George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)

Freeman recently returned from a trip to the G7 Summit in Japan. Though he describes the visit as “gruelling”, he eventually signed a renewed science and technology deal that builds on a long history of cooperation between the two countries. He proudly hands over a plastic folder designed for the event, with a Japan-UK symbol in the corner: a reminder, perhaps, of a job well done. 

Freeman says what struck him about the summit – other than the fact he was the only man among seven “incredibly powerful” female science and technology ministers – was the eagerness of other countries to collaborate with the UK. 

“France, Germany and Italy are all very aware that post-Brexit, they really want to deepen their bilateral links with us,” he says. “So there is a huge appetite around the world for people who want to really do more with us.”

However this desire for collaboration feels at odds with the difficulties the UK is having in re-entering Horizon Europe, the European Union’s flagship science programme. While the minister says he is expecting a report in the “next week or so” about how negotiations are progressing, he adds, “we have made very clear that being in Horizon was always our policy. It never changed. It was the EU that was keeping us out, and the Prime Minister has instructed the team to negotiate. We just need a fair settlement – a fair reassociation price. So I would like to think, given that everyone across Europe that I have spoken to… has said, ‘we really want the Brits back in Horizon’, it would be pretty extraordinary if the EU can’t negotiate a sensible deal.”

History has proven that when new technologies come they… create as many jobs… if not more, than those they replace

At the same time as negotiating to re-enter Horizon, the UK has been working on a science programme of its own: Pioneer. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has described the scheme as a “bold, ambitious alternative” should “association to Horizon Europe on fair and appropriate terms not be possible”.

Does Freeman worry that working on our own programme will send the EU a negative signal regarding our commitment to Horizon?

“I hope that it sends a message of how committed we are to international science,” he reasons, “but also that it’s not that if we are not in Horizon we can’t do anything. We can crack on and will crack on – we have other ways of deploying the money, which I think is helpful for negotiations.”

While Freeman says he would be “very surprised if we can’t find a fair price” for re-entering Horizon, he acknowledges that when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), the UK has taken a different approach. “The EU has decided that you can regulate for one thing called AI. We have taken a different view, which is that AI is a suite of technologies, with hugely different applications, and that we want to regulate the application.”

George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)
George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)

Thinking about the application of AI, Freeman says our strategy will “avoid us demonising a technology, which history has shown is normally a mistake, but to focus on the real and practical everyday concerns about how and where AI is working.”

However, the government has been criticised for taking a less restrictive approach to AI development than other countries. After the government published its AI white paper in March Giulia Gentile, fellow at the London School of Economics Law School researching digital society and AI regulation, said: “The impression is that the UK government is allowing innovation to triumph as a value in itself without considering the broader disruptive implications for the society.”

With a report from investment bank Goldman Sachs estimating that AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs, should we be worried?

Freeman’s answer is, quite simply, no. “History has proven that when new technologies come, they… create as many jobs… if not more, than those they replace,” he explains, “so it’s not actually job creation through AI that is the real issue. I think actually for people who might be doing jobs at the moment that are highly repetitive and very stressful and could be replaced…what human societies tend to do is use the creative genius of humanity in a better way.” He explains the key is having frameworks in place to skill the public in the new industries emerging in AI’s wake.

However positioning the UK as an effective country in which to drive innovation has proved challenging. For instance when pharmaceutical company Novartis halted a major trial of a new drug to reduce cholesterol in the UK, Sir Martin Landray, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Oxford University branded it “not a great advert for the UK’s life sciences ambitions”.   

Freeman points to the fact that the NHS put together the world’s biggest clinical trial and launched the world’s first genomic medicine service. But he admits that the pace of technological advances in the life sciences industry presents a challenge to our health service. 

“As a public healthcare system, its job is to make sure that it is protecting every pound of public money for public health good,” he says. “So the quality of life… figure that the NHS has is a calculation of what represents good value for an innovation. But these are very big statistical formulae. If you’re a patient who has got a diagnosis, there is no formula big enough for the innovation that you want.”

While the NHS is never going to pay top price for new drugs and treatments, Freeman says we must provide companies with a “compensating alternative” to come to the UK. “We should develop the NHS as a global testbed so that our patients can get quick access to innovation and developers, companies can get quick access to data to see what works, and the NHS gets discounts in return for accelerated research. Now that is a very, very powerful proposition.” Freeman points to major deals with Moderna and BioNTech as evidence “we are getting something right”. 

History has proven that when new technologies come they… create as many jobs… if not more, than those they replace

“We are in an ever more competitive race and other countries are chucking huge amounts of money [at it], and or, cutting tax rates very fast. So we are having to fight for every pound.”
Should we not be doing the same?

“The UK is going to have to do something a bit cleverer than that,” Freeman admits, “which is to work out what our unique selling point is… and play to it. In the NHS and in health innovation and life sciences – which is my career background – the real opportunity is not that we spend as much as the Americans on healthcare…Our real opportunity is to use the NHS as a connected health system to use digital health to detect earlier and keep people out of hospital... It is about harnessing the cost and health economic benefits of technology.”

Freeman tells me he grew up a ward of court after his parents divorced when he was just 11 months old. He reunited with his father when he was 18 – horse racing jockey Arthur Freeman – who sadly passed away shortly afterwards. 

“He suffered from very bad mental health and he had head injuries as a jockey,” Freeman explains, “so I became very interested early on in neuroscience, asking ‘what was that all about?’ And ‘could I see his patient record?’”

George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)
George Freeman (Credit: Jack Lawson)

Before entering Parliament in 2010, Freeman had a career in biomedical venture capital. “A lot of this, for me actually, is personal,” he reflects. “I never would have imagined that I would end up in politics as minister for science. But if I go back and think about the things that were driving me as a boy at school, it seems very logical.”

In May the government published its long-awaited semiconductor strategy, pledging £1bn to the sector. However Labour accused the government of lacking ambition and one UK startup pointed out the figure was less than the cost of one basic semiconductor plant. The UK’s commitment contrasts to those of competitors: the United States has pledged $52bn and the EU €11bn in subsidies. 

However, as with life science investments, Freeman says that it is “not quite as simple as: ‘how big is your budget?’” Instead, it is a question of: ‘how well positioned are we in this global race?’” 

Freeman seems confident of our standing. He points to the five semiconductor clusters of excellence around the world, which “most people would accept as China, Holland, South Wales and the States”.  South Wales, he says, is leading the way for the development of hyper conductive material that may replace slow and heat inefficient silicon chips. “Don’t take it from me,” he laughs, “take it from the people at the G7 who said, ‘well that is fundamental technology’.” 

Freeman insists: “If the UK’s billion is focused on developing our unique selling point – our real strength – then it will pay many, many times over.”

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