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UK ‘ready’ to snub £88.6bn Horizon research programme over Brexit row

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The UK's new science and technology minister said Britain is willing to "go it alone" if an agreement cannot be reached over the UK's membership of the Horizon Europe research scheme.

Michelle Donelan said she is prepared to snub the European Union’s €100bn (£88.6bn) flagship research programme and create an alliance with the US, Japan and Switzerland to replace it.

Writing in The Telegraph, Donelan acknowledged that the science sector was eager to know about the UK’s association with the EU programme, Horizon. However, she stressed the government is "more than ready to go it alone” if the negotiations should fail. 

Donelan was recently appointed to her role, following prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle last week, which resulted in the creation of a dedicated department for science, innovation and technology. 

The UK government has previously accused the European Commission of refusing to engage in talks over UK membership of Horizon. 

“If we cannot associate, we are more than ready to go it alone with our own global-facing alternative, working with science powerhouses like the US, Switzerland and Japan to deliver international science collaborations," Donelan wrote. 

"I will not sit idly by while our researchers are sidelined. The time for waiting is quickly coming to an end and I will not shy away from striking out alone.”

Under the 2020 Brexit agreement, the UK was to obtain associate membership of the bloc’s research initiatives post-Brexit. However, it was revealed last year that the EU has been purposefully 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 deal. 

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

However, this goal took a backseat in the government's 2021 budget. In order to address the cost-of-living crisis, the country's £22bn R&D investment target was pushed back two years to 2026-27. 

Uncertainty over access to science funding has been met with criticism from the UK's leading research institution and resulted in some of the country's brightest minds choosing to relocate to countries where they can still qualify for Horizon Europe grants.

The president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, responded to Donelan's article by saying that the science secretary's “first job” must be "to secure association to Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes”.

“These schemes support outstanding international collaboration and without being part of them we are undermining the prime minister’s stated ambition for the UK to be at the forefront of science and technology globally,” he added. 

James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at UCL, told The Guardian that Donelan "needs to temper her ‘plan B’ hubris with a dose of realism".

Wilson said: “There’s no scenario in which life outside Horizon will be good for UK science. The sooner ministers stop pretending that it could be, and drop the ‘science superpower’ froth in favour of a level-headed assessment of UK options and priorities, the better.”

In the past, Russell Group universities have won over 14,000 European Research Council grants worth approximately £1.5bn – more than the whole of France – making the Horizon programme a vital part of the UK academic landscape.

Oxford and Cambridge, which used to receive over £130m a year from European research programmes, are now only being granted £1m annually between them.

Last year, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the EU’s refusal to finalise access is “causing serious damage to research and development in both the UK and EU member states”.

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.  

Last week, the government and the EU reiterated their commitment to finding “joint solutions” to the differences around the Northern Ireland protocol. 

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

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