Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
11. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the steps being taken to ensure that Northern Ireland is involved in the Horizon Europe research programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49456/21]
For the past number of years, the Horizon Europe programme has provided huge funding and motivation, not just for the third-level sector but to so many researchers to develop vital new innovations. In light of Brexit, what steps are being taken by the Government to ensure Northern Irish institutions and researchers will still be able to access the new Horizon Europe programme?
I thank the Deputy for raising this question and for consistently working with me and keeping my Department under good pressure to make sure we do all we can to keep those strong higher education, research and science links that exist between North and South. This is another example of those links.
The Government and I strongly support Northern Ireland’s participation in Horizon Europe, the new framework programme for research and innovation. Researchers and innovators from across the island have worked successfully on previous framework programmes and I want this to continue. As the Deputy will be aware, I am committed to strengthening North-South collaboration in research, and during the summer, the Taoiseach and I launched a €40 million North-South research programme funded from the shared island initiative. This has the potential to be transformational. It will support collaboration among individual researchers, teams and institutions across the island. The programme is currently open for applications, and I am delighted to see the great levels of interest in the programme from across the higher education and research community. My Department is also continuing to work closely with InterTradeIreland to facilitate collaborative opportunities for researchers and innovators that will arise from Horizon Europe.
With respect to the legal process, the principle of the UK's association with the Horizon Europe programme was agreed as part of the overall trade and co-operation agreement and the detailed arrangements are currently being finalised between the European Commission and the UK. Once the UK associates to Horizon Europe, subject to ratification of the overall deal and finalisation of the Horizon Europe programme regulations, association will give researchers and innovators in Northern Ireland access to funding under the programme on equivalent terms as organisations in EU countries. I welcome that and very much want to see that happen.
Furthermore, on an issue I know the Deputy has a great interest in at undergraduate level, the Government has committed to facilitating the continued access to Erasmus mobilities for higher education students in Northern Ireland. Officials in my Department are engaging with their counterparts in the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland on this matter. I am encouraged by the level of interest among students in Northern Ireland on Erasmus. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I expect to be in a position to make a funding announcement on that shortly.
I have a few supplementary questions. Horizon Europe, or Horizon 2020 as it was known previously, provides opportunities for researchers, institutions and society as a whole across the European Union unlike anything that went before in terms of innovation, life-saving drugs, new technologies and viable economic ventures. It is to the forefront of a strategy that makes this region the world's largest economic bloc. On our own small island, the more collaboration North-South the better and the more we can latch onto that and emphasise it, the better. I have concerns about the overall trade and co-operation agreement and the implementation of the post-Brexit agreements. The Minister referred to the excellent work he and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have done to ensure Northern Irish students still have access to Erasmus+. Are there any contingency plans, regardless of what is going on in the wider Brexit scope, to ensure Northern Ireland always has access to Horizon?
The Government gave a clear commitment, as did the previous Government, to ensuring that Northern Ireland is never left behind and we are going to honour that commitment in every way we can. I am not in any way disputing the valid points the Deputy made, but I welcome the fact that under the current agreement it is envisaged that the UK, and therefore Northern Ireland, will have access to Horizon 2020 as associate members. That would be a good outcome. I hope that the Deputy can see from my answer today, but more importantly from our actions, that the Government is not standing idly by in respect of research or collaboration. We do not just want to continue doing what we were doing with Northern Ireland or the UK. We want to do more in the higher education and research spaces. To his credit, the Taoiseach's allocation of that €40 million pot from the shared island fund to directly fund research collaborations North and South is innovative and it has been well received. Equally, the commitments we have made under New Decade, New Approach regarding the Magee campus of Ulster University and the expansion of the university there, which is an issue Deputy Conway-Walsh and I discuss regularly, is another tangible example of our wish to do more. While I will leave it to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to engage at EU level, my Department will continue to explore every option to collaborate more and more.
I am struck by the fact that this is yet another lamentable occasion where we do not have the North-South Ministerial Council operating at full capacity. This is the area that is made for that strand 2 institution of the Good Friday Agreement to be running at its best. Within Horizon Europe over the years, Ireland has participated well but it has not got the most out of it. I fear that with the new agreement within the broader UK set-up, Northern Ireland will not necessarily punch above its weight. However, if we have both jurisdictions working together, and I commend the Taoiseach and the shared island unit on everything they are doing, there will be an opportunity to make this a research destination, North-South and east-west across this island. Institutions will be able to collaborate at every level and we can maximise the potential returns from this wonderful European project.
As part of our development of a new national research and innovation strategy, which I expect to have concluded by the end of the year, we will set a new national target for Horizon Europe. I share the Deputy's wish and desire for us to do more, do even better, draw down as much funding as possible and collaborate as much as we possibly can. Our top countries for collaborations are currently Germany, Spain, the UK, Italy and France. I share the Deputy's view in that regard. We will set that new ambitious national target for Horizon Europe as part of our new strategy. I also share the Deputy's concerns about meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the like. At an official level there is intensive engagement and collaboration between my officials and officials in the Department for the Economy. We have had very good engagement, particularly around the issue of Magee and Erasmus. I am determined on that issue of Magee that this Government will honour the commitments we have made under New Decade, New Approach to expand that footprint. There is the new medical school there but there is so much potential to do more in Derry and benefit the whole north-west region of this island.