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BEIS returns £1.6bn allocated to Horizon Europe

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The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has returned £1.6bn of funds that had been earmarked for science and innovation programmes, according to reports.

The Treasury has taken back £1.6bn that it had allocated for the UK's involvement in the European Union's research programme, Horizon Europe, or domestic alternatives. 

The move was revealed on page 300 of the Central Government supply estimates 2022/23, as reported by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). However, the decision has not been communicated to the research community or media in any other medium.

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 due to the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

During his election campaign the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, vowed to develop a £15bn UK research funding programme to rival Horizon, pledging to make the country a “science superpower”.

Last week, the UK's science and technology minister, Michelle Donelan, said she is prepared to snub Horizon and create an alliance with the US, Japan and Switzerland to replace it.

However, the ongoing dispute has meant that the money allocated to the association has not been spent, and it's now seemingly being returned. 

The Treasury move has prompted angry reactions from the research community.

"The failure of all sides to secure the UK's association to the EU's research programmes has now cost UK science £1.6bn," said Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society. 

"That comes on top of the talented researchers who have left the UK in order to carry on their collaborative work. How does this sit with the government's stated mission to have the UK as a science superpower?"

Professor Sarah Main, executive director at CaSE, stressed that the research community was repeatedly told by the government that R&D budgets would be protected and that the money allocated for Horizon Europe would be spent on R&D.

She called on the government to "follow through its ambition for science and innovation with a coordinated action and investment" and "not reversals and false starts".

"Can the prime minister now set out how he plans to mitigate this loss and put science and engineering at the heart of the UK's future?," she said. 

Meanwhile, John Hardy, professor of neuroscience at UCL, said the news  “confirms all my worst fears about the difference between the claims that Britain is a science super-power and the reality".

"I fear the opposite is happening," he added. "We are fading fast, and having just done a review meeting in Paris, I fear we are being overtaken. And it’s definitely getting harder to attract bright students and postdocs to London. It’s depressing that the government promised to protect this money for R&D but now appear to have given it back.”

Earlier this month, the government and the EU reiterated their commitment to finding “joint solutions” to the differences around the Northern Ireland protocol, and meetings have been taking place over the last week to resolve the issue.

In addition to Horizon Europe, the UK is yet to obtain formal access to Copernicus, the Earth observation programme on climate change; Euratom, the nuclear research programme, and services such as Space Surveillance and Tracking.   

In the past, countries such as Norway, Iceland and Turkey have been granted access to the EU research programmes, despite not being members of the EU.

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