22 November 2021
BioYorkshire and the Bio-Economy

George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, responds to an Adjournment Debate on BioYorkshire and the UK biosciences economy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)

It is genuinely a great pleasure, on this late Monday night, to respond to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), to pay tribute to her advocacy of the project and the wider cause that it embodies, and to take the opportunity to set out my personal support for the project’s aims. She would not expect me to say tonight that the cheque is in the post or to commit agencies that I cannot and should not commit.

In paying tribute to the hon. Lady’s advocacy, I will set out what the Government are trying to do overall in the area that she has highlighted. I will highlight some of the powerful elements of the bid and where they may fit into the emerging Government landscape. I would be delighted to visit as part of a programme of visits that I am doing around the country.

In the time available, I will try to set the scene. It is a great pleasure to be here as the newly appointed Minister for Science, Research and Innovation with a mission to implement the Prime Minister’s vision of a science superpower and an innovation nation. That means that the UK, in an increasingly competitive global world, has to continue to punch above its weight in science with world-class science and science for the global good that helps to prevent climate change, feed 9 billion hungry mouths and solve global challenges, as the hon. Lady has been talking about.

The innovation nation piece is about not just being good at science but building an ecosystem in the UK and making the UK a testbed or cluster globally for developing the new technologies that will help us to harness the renewable power of the sun and waves and the extraordinary power of bioscience, which is an area of particular interest and expertise of mine. Importantly, on the hon. Lady’s point, it is about ensuring that, as a nation, not only do we have world-class science in the golden triangle, but that we use our procurement and regulatory power to create clusters of new technologies around the country to create jobs and opportunities and a more resilient and fair economy, which is what the Government’s levelling-up mission is ultimately all about.

I suggest that the project speaks to all those challenges in a positive and helpful way. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s advocacy. She raised the issue with the Prime Minister last Monday, she spoke in the bio-economy debate, she spoke in the north of England: economic support debate, and she has spoken to me personally, so nobody could be doing more to promote it.

At the recent comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor set out a historic package of support for science and innovation. The country has spent more on science in the last 10 years than it has for decades. We have decided to increase that again in the next three years by 30%, from £15 billion to £20 billion a year, and we have recommitted to move to £22 billion a year by ’27 on the journey to spending 2.4% of GDP. The Government are making important strategic long-term commitments.

Within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, post CSR, the Secretary of State and I are looking at where best to deploy those funds for maximum impact in terms of being a science superpower and an innovation nation. Fundamental to the innovation nation piece, we will be looking to support clusters around the country. That will not be about trying to move world-class laboratories in Cambridge or Oxford to the north, which would not be sensible; the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology is one of our top laboratories partly because of where it is. It means ensuring that we support the clusters that are taking shape around the country, including the Yorkshire cluster that the hon. Lady talked about.

The hon. Lady knows my personal commitment to the bio-economy. Six years ago, when I was Minister for Life Sciences, I pushed the argument that life sciences should be a broader package of science of life, including the bio-economy and the appliance of bioscience across food, medicine and energy, and should look at how our understanding of biological systems can help to tackle global challenges. We have to feed 9 billion mouths and double world food production with the same land area and half as much water and energy, which is a big challenge. Which country in the world is best equipped to deal with that? This country, because of our agricultural science tradition. If we put together our digital expertise, our agri-tech and our bioscience, and start to invest in those multidisciplinary sciences, I would suggest that we have a huge opportunity to make a big global impact around the world.

Given a background in agriculture and agri-tech, having worked in the seeds industry and having the Norwich research park on my doorstep, I look at Fera, the leadership the hon. Lady has outlined powerfully in precision farming and in agri-tech, the University of York and the agriculture college. This is genuinely a cluster of excellence in its field. The bid it has put together around fuel, chemicals, materials, net zero, food and feed, and land use is a powerful one, and there is very little in it not to be supportive of.

This fits with what we set out in our innovation strategy earlier this summer. The hon. Lady will know that we have identified seven technologies of tomorrow that we want to support strategically. Two of them go right to the heart of this cluster: one in bio-engineering and synthetic biology, and one in genomics, including agricultural genomics for drought-resistant crops, disease-resistant crops and low-carbon farming. I also highlight that we are investing in the HEMP-30 project already through Innovate UK.

In the first half of this year, before returning to Government, I led a big piece of work for the Prime Minister looking at how we could use our regulatory freedoms on departure from the EU to support innovation. This was the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform report—or, Madam Deputy Speaker, the TIGRR report, if that trips off the tongue more easily—in which we identified 10 sectors where with very little regulatory leadership, and no need of primary legislation, we could unlock billions of investment.

Three of those sectors go to the heart of this bid. There is the agri-environment sector, and the importance of better science and the UK leading in the science of sustainability—the metrics of sustainable farming—so we can begin to label food so that consumers can see that this apple, potato or pint of milk has a low- carbon footprint, or a low-plastic, low-water footprint. It is that labelling that will drive empowered and enlightened consumers.

We also set out a series of recommendations about cannabinoid medicines, CBD and industrial hemp as a net-zero crop with huge potential, and the broader application of agri-genetics for both net zero agriculture and nutriceuticals, functional foods and the interaction of food and agricultural medicines.

There is very good landscape precedent, if I can put it that way, for the space in which this bid is being developed. It is for that reason as well that I am delighted to confirm that I would genuinely want to come up. I am organising a series of regional visits to support clusters, and I would hugely value coming up for a whole day and doing a series of visits around that cluster to help to support its development.

The hon. Lady will understand that we have a process internally now for allocating the CSR funds. There is a huge amount of work going on in my Department and others to set out a framework for that and make sure that it is criteria-led. She will understand that having an Adjournment debate is not a sufficient criterion as and of itself for making that decision, but she has made the case very powerfully.

I am pleased to see that the overall sum has come down from what was a very big number, which makes it harder to approve. I think that these things typically start small and grow and finding a good entry level is key to this project. I would also encourage her, as we discussed earlier, to make sure that the BBSRC supports this. I am sure it would. I cannot commit it, but I cannot think why it would not fit well in its overall structure—and, similarly, Innovate UK and UKRI. On that basis, I think this would stand a very good chance, which is actually—just to correct the record—what the Prime Minister said. I do not think that he actually committed to fund this. What he said was, as I have done, that it is a very strong case and one that it is quite difficult not to see a lot of merit in.

I would close by saying that, if we are going to create an innovation nation, yes, that is about strategic investment by Government in technologies, in institutes and in buildings, but in the end it is about creating clusters. I suggest to the House, which I regret to say is not packed, that the best definition of a cluster is perhaps something that the hon. Lady, I and the representative on the Government Benches tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), can take away and share. For all the academic work on clusters, I suggest that the best definition of a cluster is a low-risk place to move one’s family to pursue a career in a high-risk sector. The conversation is, “Let’s move to Cambridge, Oxford, London, or Yorkshire because, darling, if this business does not work, there are plenty of others. The schools are good, the landscape is good and the quality of life is good—there is a cluster there.” In the end, the cluster normally comes to a mixture of public and private institutions, with entrepreneurship, innovation, support, and a shared vision, and that is what the bid sets out.

If we are to change the life chances of people around the country, it will be done through creating a different identity and a different sense of what this place is about. When we consider the institutions in that area, North Yorkshire is traditionally associated with the most beautiful countryside, wonderful tourism, great heritage and wonderful produce—who wouldn’t want to go on holiday to Yorkshire? However, not everyone can make a living in tourism, and the bid speaks to a bigger, bolder, more global, international higher-value economy for that part of the world, which I for one would be keen to support.

I am sorry that I cannot announce anything tonight—that is not my place at this point—but I am delighted to share with the hon. Lady that I would be delighted to come to visit and to continue to work with her and the partners on what looks like a very exciting bid for that part of the world.