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Brexit Britain is poised to snub the European Union’s £85billion flagship research project, opting for an international deal with countries like the US, Japan and Switzelernad instead. The UK’s new Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan has said that Britain is “more than ready to go it alone” after the bloc was slammed for “dragging its feet” on negotiations about the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5billion (£85billion). Britain had previously negotiated to stay in the programme as part of the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
However, the bloc told Britain it cannot rejoin until the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute is resolved. As a result, UK-based scientists who had access to prestigious EU grants and were ready to form partnerships with European collaborators have had their funding cut as access to the scheme remains blocked
Now, the new Science Secretary said that should the bloc not agree to the UK’s post-Brexit terms of membership, Britain will join with the United States, Japan and Switzerland under a new research alliance.
The European Commission has been accused of “dragging its feet” over negotiations to get the UK back into Horizon, in an effort to “blackmail” the Government in negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As part of its inclusion in the seven-year scheme, the UK had pledge to contribute £2.1billion a year, allowing British researchers to access and apply for prestigious EU grants and facilitates collaboration with European scientists who work on projects of all kinds, from climate change studies to quantum mechanics and AI.
While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scrambling to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute with the EU, Ms Donelan’s statements suggest that Government intends to remain tough on the bloc.
She wrote in the Telegraph: “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. I will not sit idly by while our researchers are sidelined.”
This comes after the EU told around 150 UK-based winners of Horizon Europe grants that they can only receive their awards if they move to a country within the bloc, or to one that has Horizon Europe association. Up to 27 researchers have already left.
However, heads of science have called on the EU and the UK to resolve their disputes, arguing that the exclusion of British researchers is damaging science across the continent.
Before Brexit, the UK set to become one of the largest contributed to scheme, while also having among the highest number of recipients being awarded funding.
Ms Donelan added: “I know too that the sector is keen to know about our future association with Horizon, the EU’s science funding programme. I will set out our position in the coming weeks.”
Following Ms Donelan’s appointment to her new role, Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said: “A dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and secretary of state with a seat in cabinet is a clear signal that research and innovation sit at the heart of the Prime Minister’s productivity and growth agenda.
“The Royal Society has long called for such a cabinet level position. Michelle Donelan’s first job must be to secure association to Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes.
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“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.”
Sir Paul Nurse FRS FMedSci HonFREng, Director of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “A first step will be to deliver Government policy to safeguard our long standing and valuable research relationships with the rest of Europe through association with Horizon Europe, which will be possible if there is agreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
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