Europe spat will weaken research – science leaders


Scientific leaders have urged the government not to abandon talks to enable the UK to participate in a €100bn European research programme.

They have told BBC News that being cut out of EU research would “greatly disadvantage” British science.

Agreement in principle was reached, but UK involvement is now a bargaining chip in talks over Northern Ireland.

In response the Science Minister, George Freeman, has said the UK is ready to set up its own scheme.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, told BBC News that ”losing the agreement on UK participation in the world’s biggest international science funding programme at this stage, when it has already been negotiated and is ready to sign, would be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.

He added: “While it’s natural for the government to plan for the worst-case scenario, we have to realise that any UK-only scheme would greatly disadvantage our scientists compared to the international opportunities that Horizon Europe opens up, with both the EU and many other countries that take part in it, such as Israel or Norway.”

The EU’s Horizon Europe programme brings together researchers from industry and academia across the EU. The projects range from fundamental research to tackling societal issues, such as combating climate change and efforts to find treatments for debilitating diseases.

Image caption,The delay in joining the EU programme will mean UK researchers will not be included in EU research projects

The UK’s continued participation in the EU’s Horizon programme was agreed in principle just before Christmas 2020 in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But the signing off of a formal agreement on the UK’s associate membership has dragged on for a year.

The delay is creating problems, because funding cannot be released to UK collaborators until there is a formal agreement. If it becomes apparent that agreement will take many more months, EU researchers will not include UK scientists in their projects.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, told BBC News that exclusion from Horizon Europe would be a “significant blow” in efforts to combat cancer.

“It will also put at serious risk the UK’s position of being at the forefront in the global effort in improving the prevention, treatment and diagnosis of cancer.

“The government must strike a deal urgently for continued membership of Horizon Europe or the UK will weaken its position to collaborate and use science to address the global challenges we face.”

Uncertainties arising from Brexit have already led to the UK missing out on £1.5bn of research funding since 2016, according to some estimates. But Sir Jeremy said that ministers should resist the temptation to walk away from the talks with the EU.

“The delays are frustrating, but the UK needs to stay in the game, and resist the urge to shut the door on Horizon. It’s the best option for supporting science and R&D in the UK.”

Sir Jeremy is responding to an article written by the science minister, George Freeman, in the magazine Research Fortnight. Mr Freeman wrote that although it was his “strong preference” to join the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, “if the EU stands in our way” the UK is ready to implement an alternative that is “just as good or better”.

That alternative was drawn up by Prof Sir Adrian Smith, in 2019, before the UK’s withdrawal agreement as a contingency in case the EU refused the UK entry into Horizon Europe. Since then Prof Smith was elected President of the Royal Society, which represents the country’s leading scientists. He told BBC News that most scientists would much rather join the EU programme than a newly-started UK scheme.

“We have had four decades of planning collaborative research with colleagues across Europe.

“The vast majority of UK researchers would feel difficulty in starting a new programme from scratch and being in competition with the prestigious schemes in the Horizon Europe programme.”

Dr Daniel Rathbone, the assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case), said it would take too long for Britain to set up its own scheme.

“In the meantime, the UK will likely lose top researchers and research groups as they move abroad to seek funding and collaboration opportunities elsewhere,” he said.

A government source told BBC News: “The EU is playing politics over Horizon and it risks damaging scientific research. Blocking the UK from joining is in no-one’s interest – we can’t participate and they lose out on our financial contribution.

“We’re having to look at alternatives in case the EU does block our access, which would be a breach of what we agreed less than a year ago.”

The option of starting a UK scheme was made possible by the chancellor in the Autumn budget when he allocated £2bn a year to pay for the UK’s membership of Horizon Europe, but officials made clear that the scientific community could spend the money on whatever it liked. The Treasury itself is understood to feel that spending money on Horizon Europe is an inefficient use of funds, but left the decision to the scientific community.

If the uncertainty drags on into the new year, scientific leaders may have no other option than to consider a UK scheme, according to Prof Smith.

“If the impasse in signing the deal continues for another month or so, there will have to be the opening up of a discussion because the hoped-for association with Horizon Europe would not have been realised,” he said.

“As the complications (arising from the uncertainty) grow, some may begin to think, ‘my goodness, maybe there is an alternative’.”