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UK scientists blocked from Horizon funding programme amid Brexit tensions

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The European Union (EU) has confirmed it is holding back the UK's access to the £81bn 'Horizon Europe' programme as a response to Boris Johnson's plans to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol.

The EU has blocked British scientists from accessing the world’s biggest research programme in the latest Brexit row. 

The UK’s associate membership of the €95bn (£81bn) Horizon Europe programme was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit agreement. However, the EU has been delaying the UK’s membership as a response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, a vital part of the Brexit agreement that governs trade between the region and mainland Britain.

Last week, VP of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, said that the EU would respond “with all measures at its disposal” if the UK goes ahead with a bill to disapply elements of the protocol. An official letter seen by Politico stated the EU's intention to use the Horizon programme as a way of pressing the British government.

João Vale de Almeida, EU ambassador to the UK, lamented that British scientists would become “collateral damage” in the dispute with the country’s place in Horizon increasingly at risk of falling “victim of the political impasse”. He added: “It’s very regrettable.”

The conflict has alarmed British academia, prompting the Russell Group universities – 24 of the most research-intensive universities in the country – to ask Johnson “to make a personal intervention to break the deadlock” before it is too late. The academics said Horizon was vital in achieving the prime minister's goal of making Britain “a science superpower”.

Russell Group universities have won over 14,000 European Research Council grants worth £1.5bn - more than the whole of France - making the Horizon programme a vital part of the UK academic landscape.
“UK research and science will suffer if British businesses and academics are excluded from Horizon Europe,” said Njy Rios, director of R&D Incentives, Ayming UK. “It will have an immediate impact on the funding of UK research and development and the UK stands to lose an estimated £14bn in funding across the seven-year lifecycle.”

In November 2021, the European Commission faced pressure when a joint statement was issued by more than 1,000 universities, 56 academies of science and 33 rectors’ associations, urging it to finalise the UK’s association with Horizon Europe or risk “endangering current and future plans for collaboration”.

The academics underscored the importance of not only providing funding for UK-based research, but also enabling cross-country collaboration and information-sharing. In December, the Royal Irish Academy also urged Ireland’s Government to help finalise the UK’s involvement with Horizon Europe, saying the ongoing delays are putting research partnerships in jeopardy.

Some scientists are already seeing the effects of this political row on their careers. According to the Guardian, Cambridge University astrophysicist Dr Nicholas Walton had to leave his coordinating role in an upcoming European Space Agency project, as he was told UK scientists cannot hold leadership roles until the country’s Horizon Europe membership is ratified. 

However, not everyone in Europe supports the plan for the UK to be granted associate status as part of Horizon.

“As long as Great Britain threatens to suspend important parts of the withdrawal agreement, it is hard to imagine doing business as usual in other areas. Rewarding Britain for its threats is simply inconceivable,” an EU diplomat told Politico. “Brexit means Brexit, it’s a self-inflicted wound.”

To prepare for the possibility of a final refusal from the EU, UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has prepared an alternative plan to spend £6bn over three years on a new global science fund, which could be activated as early as next month.

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