Scientific leaders have urged the UK government to rejoin the EU’s €95.5bn Horizon research programme as soon as possible, after prime minister Rishi Sunak questioned whether membership represented value for money.
“The UK will find it extremely difficult to be an effective research power if it is . . . not part of the European research network,” Sir Paul Nurse, head of the Francis Crick Institute in London, said on Tuesday at the launch of a government-commissioned report into Britain’s scientific research base.
“Frankly, alternative arrangements that are being discussed elsewhere will be utterly inadequate in comparison,” he added. The FT reported last week that Sunak was looking at other options in place of Horizon membership, including the UK’s “plan B” global research plan.
“Of course we should extend connections to the rest of the world, but first we have to do association with Europe, our closest neighbours, where we have networks already working,” Nurse said.
Tom Grinyer, chief executive of the UK’s Institute of Physics, agreed. “The government’s continued hesitation on Horizon puts the government’s tech ambitions — and the UK’s future as a science superpower — at risk,” he warned.
The country’s science leaders have become increasingly alarmed that Sunak might decide not to rejoin Horizon. On Monday, the UK’s science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan underlined the government’s stance on membership: “It would have to be on acceptable and favourable terms,” she said. “It would have to be value for money for the taxpayer.”
Last week Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said work would begin on Britain’s associate membership of Horizon after a breakthrough on a new post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland trade, known as the Windsor framework. Brussels had blocked British scientists from joining the scheme last year because of the row over Northern Ireland.
But negotiations on rejoining are expected to take between six and nine months, as London and Brussels work out financial arrangements and agree on the extent of UK participation in Horizon. The top priority for British scientists is regaining access to the European Research Council, which funds the highest quality scientific projects.
The UK had originally allocated as much as £15bn for participation over the seven-year Horizon programme that runs to 2027, but with just three to four years left that figure will fall significantly.
“The benefits of European collaboration go far beyond financial returns,” said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. “It provides ready-made routes to collaborate with multiple countries on some of the most challenging and groundbreaking areas of research. It is also a magnet for both retaining the best UK talent and attracting the brightest from around the world.”
The cross-party UK trade and business commission wrote to Sunak on Tuesday evening, calling on him to “urgently recommit” to joining the EU programme.
“The longer the UK delays on Horizon membership, the longer the UK will be unnecessarily excluded from significant funding opportunities, and from the economic benefits that international scientific collaboration can bring,” said the commission, whose joint leaders are the Labour MP Hilary Benn and Peter Norris, Virgin Group chair.
The government responded: “We will continue to discuss how we can work constructively with the EU in a range of areas, including future collaboration on research and innovation.”