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Johnson’s legacy: The UK loses critical science funding because of Brexit row

Boris Johnson’s days as prime minister may be finally numbered but the damage his government has done will live on, not least in the scientific community where over 100 prestigious EU grants have been withdrawn as the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol poisons relations

Image: The New European

It will be of scant comfort to Britain’s scientists that the man whose government did so much to endanger the UK’s status as a science superpower is finally being forced out of office. For many of the country’s brightest minds, Johnson’s political demise – or at least the beginning of the end – comes too late to save their participation in precious research projects.

More than 100 grants from the prestigious €95.5bn Horizon Europe funding programme have been terminated because the UK failed to resolve the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Not only did Johnson’s team not break the deadlock, they made things worse by proposing legislation to allow the UK to unilaterally rewrite parts of the Brexit deal and override the protocol, sparking a legal battle with the EU.

As Johnson tries to eke out another few weeks presiding over a cabinet of also-rans who have no power to make new policy, there can be little hope of a political breakthrough before the summer recess. Science Minister George Freeman was one of the scores of Conservative MPs who resigned during this week’s mass Road-to-Damascus political pile-up, although he tweeted on Friday that he had told the Chief Whip that now that Johnson had resigned, he’d be happy to return to work through the summer. 

As part of the original Brexit deal, Britain was supposed to retain associate membership of the Horizon scheme but that was never ratified because of the protocol row. As the stalemate dragged on, the European Research Council – the organisation that  delivers much of the funding – said that if ratification did not happen by June 29, the grants would only be available to those researchers willing to move their work to a European institution. 

That has now come to pass: it was reported this week that of the 150 grants originally approved by the ERC for British applicants, 115 have been terminated with just 18 academics agreeing to move to unlock the funds. 

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the UK’s government’s refusal to do what was needed to rejoin Horizon was a massive own goal.

“UK-based scientists have benefitted greatly from this scheme, and from the EU research programme more generally. However, the prime minister has prioritised ideology over the national interest. Participation is based on the Brexit trade deal, itself based on foundations created by the Withdrawal Agreement. By tearing up the latter, the whole edifice falls down,” he said. 

Reacting to termination of grants, Professor David Paterson, president of the Physiological Society, said the scale of the world’s challenges – from climate change to preparing for the next pandemic – called for an eradication of barriers not the construction of new ones. 

“Science is a global endeavour and the UK is a world leader,” he said in a statement. “The UK has been successful in large parts because we have valued strong international partnerships. Horizon is the world’s largest multinational research and innovation programme, and the UK should be aiming for nothing less than association so that UK and EU researchers can collaborate freely.”

Before it was gutted by the farce that preceded Johnson’s begrudging decision to almost-resign this week, the UK government had promised to make up for any lost research funds and even, eventually, set up a British “Plan B” alternative to Horizon, if associate membership was not ratified. Of course, that was before science minister Freeman resigned: it is not clear who’s in charge now or whether those plans for a replacement have been scrapped. 

In any case, McKee argued a British alternative would simply not measure up, comparing it to the UK replacement for the EU’s Erasmus+ exchange programme, which is narrower in scale, and scope, and with less guaranteed multi-year funding. 

“Drawing an analogy with the Turing Scheme, proposed as a replacement for Erasmus+, any UK scheme will likely be far inferior and certainly less prestigious. It is also unclear whether he (Freeman) will manage to get the Treasury to fund it, not least because the government now seems to be in death throes,” McKee said on Wednesday. 

On that same day – as Johnson’s toddler-like behaviour brought the government to its knees – Freeman tweeted that the Treasury’s lack of commitment to fund Plan B “risks a deepening brain drain & crisis of confidence & credibility in UK #ScienceSuperpower mission.”

Commenting on the news of the withdrawn grants, scientist and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox lamented the “unfortunate” timing, saying, “I suspect if Johnson had gone last week rather than this week / next, then these grants could have been saved.”

And that is the tragedy wrapped in the Johnson farce. His graceless, gumption-less departure – or what The Economist dubbed Clownfall – is too late for large sections of British society for whom the damage is already done. And the ripple effect spreads beyond Britain’s shores. 

“The Prime Minister is willing to sacrifice jobs, growth & world-leading research for his own vanity,” tweeted Chi Onwurah, the Labour Party’s shadow science minister, on Wednesday.

“The government should be ensuring Britain thrives in its new role in the world by making Brexit work. Leaving #Horizon is the complete opposite of this. We’re already seeing a brain drain of Britain’s brightest & best scientists. If the Govt do not ratify Horizon this will continue.”

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