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How Brexit threatens the UK’s role as a global research leader

Rows with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol are holding up UK associate membership of the Horizon Europe funding programme - and now scientists fear Britain could lose some of its brightest minds as well as its place as a global leader

Picture: The New European

French physiologist Claude Bernard once wrote, “Art is I; Science is We”, neatly capturing the collaboration that lies at the heart of successful scientific endeavours. But now the UK faces exclusion from this critical “we” because of the political row over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The seemingly endless spat with Brussels is holding up ratification of the UK’s associate membership of Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5bn funding programme for research and innovation, which was agreed as part of the Brexit trade deal. At the time, UK-based researchers breathed a huge sigh of relief as they had feared a total exclusion.

Once the principle of associate membership was set, UK-based researchers were encouraged to apply once more for prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants for individuals, as well as Horizon funding for collaborative projects on everything from malaria to physics to social sciences. Unsurprisingly, given the pedigree of British research, many UK applications were successful.

But now those grants, worth millions of euros, and the critical research they will fund, are hostage to political fortune or rather, some might say, to the whims of a beleaguered and discredited prime minister who seems to brandish the protocol – which is designed to prevent the return of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland – as a defensive shield whenever his political fortunes take a dive.

Some academics, who were recently selected for Horizon grants, have been told they have two months to move to the EU, or a Horizon-associated country, or risk being replaced by other applicants. The stalemate also means UK researchers are unable to lead on joint Horizon-funded projects. After more than a year of uncertainty, it’s crunch time for these brilliant minds with little hope of a swift political resolution to break the deadlock. In fact the opposite may be true.

With Partygate simmering and tough local elections looming, Boris Johnson now says he is planning to unilaterally “fix” the protocol, a move that would surely drag Anglo-EU relations to yet another low, possibly scuppering all hopes of associate membership in Horizon Europe, at least for now.

It’s a devastating prospect for the UK’s research community, but even worse is the possibility that Britain could eventually decide to give up on Horizon altogether.

“Something’s got to give,” says Martin Smith, head of policy lab at research charity Wellcome. “I would say we’re talking about a small number of months before the UK changes its mind about its objective to associate (with Horizon Europe) and decides ‘enough is enough, we want to go our own way’.”

Joanna Burton, policy manager at the Russell Group of UK universities, says a delayed association is still better than none.

“It is definitely regrettable that it has dragged on for so long and uncertainty is not ideal for researchers, who need to know that their funding is safe… we think it’s a shame that science collaboration is being held hostage to the wider political issues. The uncertainty is definitely starting to bite but we are still hopeful that association will be formalised,” she said.

All Britain’s scientists can do is look on helplessly. There is no reason their future work should be tied to the protocol – in fact, the Tory government says it wants to put science, research and innovation at the heart of its vision for “Global Britain” – but if Brexit is anything, it is light on logic.

Some of the country’s top researchers are now wondering if it is time to move to more stable work environments across the Channel.  Many of those who have been awarded those badge-of-honour ERC grants have already been approached by European institutions.

Smith says the scientific community has been pleading with both sides to decouple science from the protocol stalemate but with little obvious success so far.

“There’s still a chance that we might get a breakthrough but what worries me is if there is further provocative action in terms of unilateral legislation from the UK side and that leads to a trade war and then the prospect of the (European) Commission being able to say, ‘we can rise above this and separate that issue out’ starts to falls off the map, which would be tragic.”

The UK government has promised to match the stalled Horizon funding – through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – as long as associate membership has not been ratified but what they cannot match is the prestige, particularly of the ERC grants – the Champions League of the research world – or Horizon’s solid guarantee of multi-year funding.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We recognise the EU’s delays to formalising the UK’s association to Horizon Europe have led to uncertainty for researchers, businesses and innovators based in the UK.​This is why the government has guaranteed funding for eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are expected to sign grant agreements by December 2022 and who have been unable to sign grant agreements with the EU. The guarantee means that eligible, successful applicants will receive the full value of their funding at their UK host institution for the lifetime of their grant.”

George Freeman, the minister for science, research and innovation, told a parliamentary committee in February that the government’s position was still to actively seek association but that a plan B – “a bold Global Britain science and discovery plan” – was also in the works.

“We are pretty advanced in developing internally some thinking with UKRI about a so-called plan B. It is a clunky phrase, but it is about how we make sure that, if we are outside Horizon, we can continue to be active European partners; we can continue those flagship fellowships that are so important; we can continue and do better in industrial collaborations; we can do more with SMEs and more global science with other partners around the world and include sectors like space that are not in Horizon at the moment.”

If plan B does go ahead, academics will make the best of it, says Russell Group’s Burton, but it is definitely not the preferred option.

“There’s very little detail on what it looks like, what it will fund, when it will be ready and there will be a bumpy transition period to get to it because it is not ready to launch… we don’t see that as the best outcome,” she said, adding that the Russell Group was still lobbying both sides to try to resolve the impasse.

In the October spending review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak set aside £6.9bn for the UK’s contribution to Horizon Europe until 2025. And he also said public investment in R&D will increase from £14.9bn to £20bn by 2024/5. Sunak said this would meet the full costs of associating with Horizon Europe but the review noted that if association failed, the funding allocated to Horizon would go to R&D, including programmes to support new international partnerships.

But in a sense, money is the least of the UK research community’s problems. The real value lies in being part of the club.

“The fundamental nature of science is that it is international, it is collaborative, it’s dealing with problems that affect the whole world like climate change and infectious diseases and all sorts of things that don’t respect national borders,” says Smith.

“Because our nearest neighbours are part of the Horizon platform, that’s where all the conversations are happening, that’s where people are forming teams around issues. A researcher described it to me quite nicely: if the UK isn’t part of that, it’s a bit like walking into a room at a party where there are all these conversations going on and then they stop talking because you are not part of that system. And that’s not just bad for the UK, that’s bad for everyone; it’s bad for European science, it’s bad for science full stop.”

This is one Brexit burden that the whole world may have to bear.

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