Brexit: Johnson says UK has ‘opportunity to expand horizons’

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Horizon Europe is the EU’s key research and innovation project that pools together around £80billion for science projects and global collaboration. The UK was going to contribute £2.1billion annually to the programme so British scientists and researchers could have access to an array of European science projects and access to funds.

But Britain has been denied access to Horizon Europe while rows over the Northern Ireland Protocol persist, with the UK reportedly ready to trigger Article 16 if there is no significant progress,

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has already confirmed that nearly £7billion that was allocated for the UK’s Horizon Europe membership could be spent on domestic research in a four-year commitment.

Policy experts have said that this now presents a “stark choice” for the British science community.

While many voices across the science community have advocated that remaining part of the EU’s Horizon Europe project is important for boosting British innovation, Mr Sunak’s announcement may turn heads, according to Professor Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL.

He said: “A huge element of uncertainty has been removed by the budget – until now, there was a £2billion a year axe hanging over the head of UK research.”

Professor Reid also said that, until now, it had seemed like the best option was to opt for “the formality of Horizon Europe” and the funds it delivered rather than a “big unknown”.

But that has apparently changed.

Professor Reid added: “Now we have a different choice to make between spending money through Brussels or the UK system – the choice has changed completely.

“How long can we keep £6billion to £7 billion in our back pocket before the Treasury says, ‘Spend it now or lose it?’”

“If we are still arguing over Northern Ireland or fishing in a year, they may simply take that year’s money [£1.3 billion in 2021-22] back, but if we were to go for UK programmes it could be spent straight away.”

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield held a similar view to Professor Reid.

According to Professor Wilsdon, Horizon Europe looks less and less appealing “the longer we are in this political limbo”.

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He said: “Researchers are being told to continue applying for grants as normal, but the reality is that research colleagues in France and Germany notice these challenging circumstances and assume we are not as reliable a partner to have.

“As we get less money back from Horizon Europe, the pro-Brexit arguments that we should go it alone on research become more persuasive and more accurate as you are not recouping the money you’re putting in.”

The comments also come as a leaked document revealed that Britain is seriously considering pulling out of Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom.

The UK was planning to pump around £15billion into these research, development, satellite and nuclear programmes, but may now be having a change of heart.

But the leaked document reportedly showed that ministers believe the delay to Britain’s access to Horizon Europe was a deliberate tactic by Brussels to gain leverage over the UK in Brexit talks.

Brexit Minister Lord Frost and Business secretary Kawsi Kwarteng are now working on a “Discovery Fund” as a new alternative to science projects that Britain has been banned from joining.

This involves plans for a target date of early 2022 for domestic schemes that would be funded by the money which otherwise would have been involved in the EU programmes.

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