Rishi Sunak is refusing to rush Britain back into the EU’s €95.5bn Horizon science programme despite his recent breakthrough in relations with Brussels, raising the prospect of a tough negotiation on rejoining the scheme.
Senior colleagues said the UK prime minister was “sceptical” about the value of the research programme — the world’s biggest — and the cost of British participation. They added that he would “take stock” of options including the country’s “plan B” global research plan.
While Britain had been expected to contribute £15bn for the full seven-year Horizon programme, three years have already passed and the two sides must now agree how much the UK would have to provide.
Sunak’s hesitancy comes despite calls by UK scientists for Britain to re-enter Horizon, which many see as vital for research, investment and turning the country into a “science superpower”.
On Thursday, 18 research bodies including the Royal Society of Chemistry, Wellcome and the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, issued a joint demand for London and Brussels to get Britain’s readmission “swiftly over the line, finally ending the damaging impasse” over Horizon.
Naomi Weir, director of innovation at the CBI, described Horizon membership as a “win-win”.
Brussels blocked British scientists from joining the scheme last year because of the row over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland and the UK’s threat to rewrite its exit deal with the EU.
Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declared that dispute settled on Monday, when they agreed a new deal on Northern Ireland trade, known as the Windsor framework.
Von der Leyen said work would begin immediately on Britain becoming an associate member of Horizon once the new framework was implemented. She said this was “good news for scientists and researchers in the EU and in the UK”.
Sunak’s allies said the prime minister was “taking stock of progress” on developing research co-operation with the EU — foreseen as part of the UK’s Brexit treaty — on a number of fronts, including Horizon.
But one British official said the UK would only join Horizon if the financial terms were acceptable, noting that Sunak had queried whether the UK should route its science budget through Brussels.
Another said Sunak was carefully studying the £6bn plan B, drawn up by science minister George Freeman, for Britain to develop a global science collaboration plan.
When asked by Conservative MP Philip Dunne on Wednesday if he had begun negotiations to rejoin Horizon, Sunak declined to answer the question directly. Instead, the prime minister said the UK would “continue to work with the EU in a range of areas — not just research collaboration, but strengthening our sanctions against Russia, energy security and, crucially, illegal migration”.
If the UK does not rejoin, the government has said it will plough the money back into research.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, noted that the government had previously said it would seek to re-enter Horizon if a Northern Ireland deal was struck.
“What the R&D sector needs to see is a clear signal from both the UK government and EU that full UK participation in EU programmes remains the priority, so that talks can begin in parallel to Windsor framework implementation,” he said.
“There will always be issues to navigate, but the progress over the Northern Ireland protocol shows what can be achieved quickly with goodwill and political resolve on both sides.”