Leading UK scientists have dismissed government plans to provide a UK alternative to the EU’s €95bn research and innovation programme, Horizon, saying that being a member of a major international programme is essential to the country’s future.
Last week, in an attempt to reassure the science sector, the government announced plans to set up a £14bn post-Brexit alternative to the UK’s membership of Horizon, which would come into operation if ministers could not agree on the terms of an “associate membership” of the EU scheme with Brussels.
Currently, negotiations are under way on an associate membership deal, but the main sticking point is how much the UK would have to pay into the seven-year programme to secure participation.
Ministers are worried that, having left the EU, Tory Brexiters will be angry if they are told the UK will have to contribute billions of pounds a year to a European project when, in theory, the UK could go it alone, having quit the bloc.
Negotiations on UK associate membership of Horizon were blocked during the long-running dispute between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol. But after agreement was reached over the Windsor framework last month, the science secretary, Michelle Donelan, headed to Brussels last Tuesday for talks with the European commissioner responsible for Horizon, Mariya Gabriel.
However, many senior British scientists remain worried that the government is even considering an alternative British programme, which they say would be a pale imitation of a European model that has powered many pioneering projects in which the UK was a leading player. Current work funded by Horizon includes improving the natural environment for bees as key pollinators for crops, and studying the next generation of mRNA therapeuticals following the success of Covid vaccines.
Many fear that the alternative programme, called Pioneer, has been set up because the government has no intention of joining the EU scheme.
Sir Paul Nurse: ‘Everywhere where science and technology matters will be damaged if we don’t associate with Europe’s Horizon programme.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel laureate and head of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told the Observer that he had great confidence in Donelan but warned that failure to negotiate a deal to allow Britain to return to the Horizon programme would have grim consequences.
“If we are not in Horizon, I would be extremely worried indeed,” he said. “I think that would cause major damage to the UK science endeavour, with knock-on effects in all sorts of places – including industry, supporting the green economy, maintaining sustainable growth, and protecting the environment.
“Everywhere where science and technology matter will be damaged if we don’t associate with Europe’s Horizon programme.”
Nurse was one of 15 UK Nobel prize winners who wrote to Rishi Sunak earlier this year to stress the importance of Britain maintaining strong European scientific ties. “I think he’s fully aware of the strength of feeling from the scientific community.”
There are three major scientific research blocs, Nurse says: North America; east Asia, around China; and Europe. “If we are not part of those blocs, which we would not be if we do not join Horizon, we will become rather lonely. We will not only damage our own science but would lose influence in a very significant way on the scientific activities of probably the biggest research bloc in the world.
“My understanding is that the Europeans are offering a reasonable deal over Horizon. We haven’t participated in the last two years so that money will be taken away, and that is reasonable. I don’t think there’s any good reason for not associating with Horizon.”
Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, agrees. “If cabinet members and even the prime minister think the UK can be a science superpower by thinking small and parochially, they need to think again,” he wrote in a recent letter to the Times.
Tony McBride, director of policy and public affairs at the Institute of Physics, added: “The UK needs a strong, comprehensive vision for R&D and a stable policy environment that will build confidence among the research community and potential investors. Association to Horizon is the best way to achieve this.”
A Department for Science, Innovation and Technology spokesperson said: “We are discussing association to Horizon Europe with the EU and hope our negotiations will be successful. That is our preference, but association must be on the right terms for the UK’s researchers, businesses and taxpayers. It would not be right to comment on the detail of negotiations. Discussions will need to reflect the lasting impact of two years of delays to the UK’s association.”
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