Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak arrives to deliver his 'Mansion House' speech at the Financial and Professional Services Address, previously known as the Bankers dinner, at Mansion House in London, Britain July 1, 2021

Rishi Sunak pledges to make the UK a ‘science superpower’ if made PM

Image credit: Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS

As part of his campaign to become the UK's next Prime Minister, Sunak has vowed to develop a research funding programme to rival the EU’s Horizon Europe.

Rishi Sunak has promised UK scientists a £15bn version of the Horizon Europe research programme, with the UK's associate membership of that EU programme still in limbo due to Brexit. 

The former chancellor - believed to be trailing rival Liz Truss in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Tory party, and thus become de facto prime minister until at least the next general election - made the announcement ahead of the latest Tory hustings in Birmingham, where he called the West Midlands the “birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution”. 

The EU's flagship Horizon programme has been at the centre of Brexit controversies over the past few months, with the UK government recently writing to the European Commission demanding that the bloc ends “persistent delays”  to the approval of the UK's associate membership to the £81bn research fund.

The continuation of the UK's participation in Horizon was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit agreement. However, there were suggestions earlier this year that the EU has been purposefully delaying the UK’s membership as a response to Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The Sunak campaign accused the EU of “playing politics” with Horizon and pledged to allocate the funding the UK would have spent supporting the programme to the new scheme. 

“Science and innovation will be at the heart of my government," Sunak said. "I will turbocharge clinical innovation to enhance our medicines research regime, deliver better access to funding and lab space, and ensure that we have access to the very best talent available. 

“My plan will secure our status as a science and technology superpower, providing opportunity and spreading prosperity in every part of our United Kingdom.”

The former chancellor confirmed that, should he become the country's prime minister, his administration would continue negotiations to finalise the UK's inclusion in the multibillion-euro project, which also funds projects like Copernicus, Euratom and Space Surveillance and Tracking, among others. However, Sunak said creating a separate research fund would show that the UK is willing to walk away from “EU politicking”.

In addition to creating an alternative research funding programme, Sunak has outlined several other measures to boost science innovation in the UK. These include upgrading the country's approval system for clinical trials, updating the medical device regulatory framework and supporting the transformation of empty commercial and industrial spaces into science laboratories.

Earlier this month, a cross-party group of peers on the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee described the government’s international science policy as “somewhat incoherent” and warned that the UK is "not on course to meet its ambitions" of becoming a science superpower by 2030.  

The report’s conclusions stressed the importance of Horizon Europe membership and expressed concern over the government’s failure to appoint a new science minister after George Freeman resigned and vacated the position on July 7 this year. A replacement is not expected to be appointed until the winner of the Conservative Party leadership race is announced on September 5 2022. 

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