Staying out of Horizon would harm British science


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Britain’s government has shown some welcome pragmatism on post-Brexit issues of late. Last week it ditched the requirement for most companies to use a “UKCA” quality assurance mark, allowing them to stick with the EU’s CE scheme. It further delayed introducing border controls on animal and plant products coming from the EU, too — again to avoid piling extra costs on business. Now it should show realism on another hangover from its EU exit, and agree to rejoin the bloc’s €95.5bn Horizon Europe science initiative.

As the world’s largest multilateral research programme, Horizon facilitates co-operation and offers grants to scientists in areas from climate change to cancer to AI. It has pulled in non-EU countries as associate members including Israel, Turkey and New Zealand. South Korea and Japan are interested in joining. The strength of the UK’s universities in attracting grants helped it, as an EU member, to receive more money from the scheme than it put in.

In its post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK negotiated associate membership of Horizon. But rejoining was held up by the row over trading arrangements with Northern Ireland. After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak resolved that dispute in February, agreement to re-enter the initiative was expected to follow swiftly. Instead, a hoped-for breakthrough last month failed to materialise. Sunak has now pushed back a decision on whether to rejoin until after the summer break, dismaying scientists.

The government is haggling over the terms, questioning whether the cost of the UK’s £2bn-a-year contribution is worthwhile. Since Britain is joining the latest seven-year programme at least two years late (and no longer being an EU member may have some impact on its pulling power) there are concerns it will this time extract less funding than it provides. Though it has rightly been let off contributions for the two missed years, the government is pushing for “value for money” terms going forward.

London is also cavilling over a correction mechanism negotiated in its EU trade deal that kicks in if it receives significantly more or less than it contributes to Horizon — but which exposes it to bigger risk on the downside. No government, say officials, can splash out £2bn a year in a cost of living crisis without ensuring it is well spent.

Britain’s universities and scientific community say they recognise the need for value — but are urging the government to get on and do a deal. A “pay to play” element is justified, they say, given the vital access Horizon provides to cross-border collaboration and talent in a globalised research environment. An alternative, go-it-alone, UK funding scheme the government has been working on, called Pioneer, is seen as a poor substitute. The Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, who wrote an independent review of UK research and innovation, has been emphatic that the UK must rejoin Horizon.

The UK could enhance its continued attractiveness as a partner by, for example, removing visa frictions for scientists. Since British participation would enhance the programme, the EU could also afford to show some flexibility. Some associate members, such as Israel and Turkey, have negotiated correction mechanisms for their contributions with symmetrical upside and downside limits. Brussels could offer the UK something similar — even if EU officials are naturally anxious to avoid elements of Britain’s trade deal becoming subjects of endless renegotiation.

Ultimately, however, the Sunak government must decide where its priorities lie. Its ambitions for the UK to be a “science and technology superpower” will appear hollow if it continues to stand aside — even for another year — from the world-leading research initiative on its doorstep.

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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