Britain, we’re told, is moving closer to reaching a welcome compromise with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So what is the point of posturing from the new secretary of state for science, Michelle Donelan, that if it all goes wrong we are ready to “snub” Brussels and withdraw altogether from the massive cross-border Horizon research programme that means so much to the very sector she now represents?
Scientific research has been yet another victim of Brexit. Before Britain chose to leave the EU, it was a major beneficiary of EU funding, picking up around £1billion a year. The labs at Oxford and Cambridge Universities shared in around £130m per year.
But post-Brexit, the UK has been frozen out of distribution via Horizon for its refusal to abide by or implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, which it asked for and negotiated. Its two universities now receive funding of just £1m a year between them, and a ‘brain drain’ of UK scientists to the continent, where they can be more certain of obtaining funding, is well underway.
It’s in this environment that the briefings came, with Donelan writing an article for a right wing newspaper that contained all the usual guff, designed to keep the Brexit supporters’ blood pressure up for another week. It declared that Britain leaving Horizon would be the EU’s loss and hinted that a far greater scientific alliance with Japan, Switzerland and the USA was our post-Brexit destiny.
How or why this would work was not made clear, and neither was the fact that such a scheme would be unlikely to ever rival the pan-European and hugely respected and influential Horizon programme. Meanwhile, the British university system continues to lose hundreds of millions of pounds and vital cross-border research opportunities while the government plays silly games.
Or rather, some sections of the government. Because it looks like No 10 is about to fold and agree to abide by the rules of the Protocol, stab the Unionists in the back and claim that backing down like that is not humiliating but some kind of glorious victory. And once the UK government has retreated from its ludicrous claims that the NIP must be torn up and even agreed that it must contain a role for the ECJ, the EU will graciously allow UK universities back into Horizon.
Only a completely cynical politician – and surely our secretary of state for science does not qualify as one of those – would then try to take credit for this by claiming to have “faced down” the Brussels bureaucrats and won.