The UK was supposed to contribute £15billion over a seven-year period towards Horizon Europe so British scientists could access EU grants and collaborate with European researchers. But the EU told the UK it cannot take part until it resolves the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is despite Britain’s inclusion being a feature of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).
Now, Science Minister George Freeman has said enough is enough, and will head to Brussels tomorrow to stress the urgency of the matter.
But if an agreement cannot be reached, Mr Freeman has also signalled confidence in the UK’s ability to go it alone after the EU snub.
He said on BBC Radio Four’s World at One: “There are three parts of Horizon programme.
“One is the fellowships, which are very highly regarded and popular.
“The second is an industry funding pillar, and the third, is innovation.
“We actually don’t get very much out of the second two.”
Mr Freeman has come up with a plan to ensure that the UK researchers that were promised Horizon participation do not lose out.
He continued: “All applications in the UK, we will guarantee the funding. So all those scientists who are putting in bids to Europe, we guaranteed UK funding for them.”
This comes after the EU told hundreds of UK-based applicants for Horizon grants they faced losing funding unless they moved to an EU country with associated member status to the programme.
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And some UK researchers and institutions that have received Horizon money in earlier funding rounds could be concerned as to what will happen next.
But Mr Freeman assured: “Secondly, we put in place a transition programme so that if we do have to go down this road, we will make sure that those universities in the UK and those researchers who’ve been receiving funds, there won’t be a cliff-edge at all and we will transition through.”
And even if Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who needs to strike a Brexit deal with the EU to ensure the UK’s place in Horizon, tears up the protocol, Mr Freeman said Britain may still have a part to play in the programme.
He said: “Thirdly, going forward, European research universities, researchers, countries, can be participants and so can we.
“The EU calls it third-country participation. We are still able to be involved in those programmes, but the key is, we have a chance to do more globally.”
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In fact, Mr Freeman has previously suggested the UK could partner with science and innovation powerhouses like our Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US) partners, as well as countries like Japan.
He has also met with counterparts in Switzerland, who is also banned from Horizon, Israel and Sweden to explore science collaboration.
But this comes as researchers across Europe have been waiting 17 months for EU and UK negotiators to strike a deal.
While Mr Freeman does have a backup plan, he has stressed that Horizon Europe membership is the preferred option.
He tweeted: “The continued blocking of the UK from the flagship European research programmes that we negotiated to remain in is deeply problematic.
“We can’t let UK researchers be sidelined. “
He added that the UK is ”still committed” to Horizon, and said Britain is ready to launch “a new £15billion Global Research Programme” if a deal is not reached.
Mr Freeman said that the EU is leaving the UK with “no choice” but to launch this “bold alternative”.