UK issues call to EU to stop holding vital research projects hostage

Lord Frost gives update on UK’s participation in Horizon Europe

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The UK will issue fresh calls to Brussels as it attempts to get EU chiefs to unblock Britain’s access to an £80billion flagship innovation programme. It is a crucial scheme whereby it was agreed the UK could take part under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) as part of the 2020 post-Brexit deal. Europe Minister Leo Docherty is expected to call on EU negotiators to allow Britain back into Horizon Europe, the scheme that would let UK researchers access prestigious grants and collaborate with European partners on crucial projects. Many UK-based researchers had signed up for grants and were promised Horizon funding for a range of different projects, from crucial cancer investigations to quantum mechanics projects.

Despite Britain’s inclusion being a feature of the TCA, Brussels told Britain it cannot take part in the scheme until the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is smoothed over. This has now dragged British researchers who had been promised Horizon grants needlessly into a political feud, many of whom have had their promised funds held up by the bloc. 

Mr Docherty is expected to say, according to to advance extracts of his address: “The UK’s participation would be a clear win-win for the UK and the EU, but the UK cannot wait much longer. The EU’s approach is causing intolerable uncertainty for our research and business communities.”

The delay has already dragged on for nearly two years. But commenting on the latest appeal, Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told “Europe needs us more than we need them when it comes to science. They are already playing politics as it (the Horizon Europe scheme) already has countries from outside the EU.”

“As some scientists in the UK have said, we should get on and set up our own system, then watch as European scientists beat a path to our door.”

But if Brussels refuses to budge, the UK may have a backup plan, although it has repeatedly made clear that participating in Horizon Europe is the preferred option. 

However, a new study from Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has pinpointed some key advantages of a proposed “Plan B”.

In a paper entitled “Horizon Europe and Plan B research funding: Turning adversity into opportunity”,  Marco Cavallaro, an expert on competition mechanisms in the EU’s framework programmes for research and innovation from the Institute of Communication and Public Policy of the Università della Svizzera Italiana, argues that a new plan could offer “even more attractive conditions for researchers”. 

He wrote in the study: “Although full association to Horizon Europe remains the best option, Plan B can be an opportunity to learn from the research funding literature and make more attractive, inclusive and less onerous grant schemes.”

Sir Iain – who has also co-authored a report as part of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) commissioned by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to asses how the UK could take advantage of Brexit – has also backed plans for the UK to set up its own alternative programme. 

A backup plan, which George Freeman, who has now returned to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy after resigning during Mr Johnson’s premiership, has previously told about the opportunities Britain could take advantage of outside the EU scheme. 

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Britain was set to contribute £15billion in order to participate in Horizon, but the UK may use around £6billion to set up its own “Global Plan B”. 

It would involve the UK striking deals with science powerhouses from across the globe, instead of focusing simply on Europe, while promised EU grants would still be covered by the Government. 

And not only cover the costs of new and existing fellowship schemes, but Mr Freeman has said that Britain could also set up a “talent and research stabilisation fund”.  This will help to prop up the income of universities that would be especially hard hit by the loss of those European funds.

Speaking exclusively to back in August, Mr Freeman said: “Horizon, Euratom and Copernicus are key research collaboration programs in which we negotiated & agreed to remain in the Brexit Agreement the prime minister signed in January 2020.

“If the EU continues to block us because of the Northern Ireland Protocol we must invest at least the same budget in a big bold prestigious alternative global UK research Program open to European and global partners to tackle big global research challenges.”

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