Scientists ‘concerned’ at PM’s silence over rejoining EU’s €95.5bn Horizon programme | Science & Tech News

Scientists have been left concerned by the prime minister’s reported “scepticism” about rejoining the EU’s €95.5bn science programme, despite the positive outcome of talks over Northern Ireland which had been blocking UK access.

“Silence is causing people really to be worried and concerned,” Professor Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said.

During last week’s news conference after the Windsor Framework was signed, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she looked forward to UK and EU researchers working together again.

“The moment it’s implemented I’m happy to start immediately, right now, the work on an association agreement, which is the precondition to join Horizon Europe, so good news for all those who are working in research and science,” she said.

UK scientists were delighted.

Britain benefitted more than any other EU country from grants handed out under the Horizon programme which offered not just funding, but leadership of pan-European research groups and access to equipment and facilities.

In the two years since the UK was kicked out of Horizon, the UK government has stepped in to match EU grant money lost.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shake hands as they hold a news conference at Windsor Guildhall, Britain, February 27, 2023. Dan Kitwood/Pool via REUTERS
Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen signed the Windsor Framework last week. Dan Kitwood/Pool via REUTERS

But one in six grant holders decided to leave the UK in order to keep their grants – often taking teams of research colleagues with them.

Grant holders who decided to remain in the UK lost the leadership role the grants brought with them, and often the ability to attract the best talent to come and work in their labs.

“The loss is not just about money,” Prof Smith added.

“It’s partnerships. It’s frameworks. It’s the shared use of equipment. It’s the flow of bright young people. All that has gone by the wayside.”

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UK scientists are keen to see new partnerships with other nations such as the US and Japan – which the government said it is working towards – but they say turning our back on Europe would more than offset any gains.

“Wouldn’t it be best to have those close collaborations that have formed over years, and open the door to formal links with other countries?” asked Dr Teresa Thurston, who studies infectious disease at Imperial College, London.

“I don’t see why you’d want to have one and not the other.”

Many in the research and development business sector believe losing scientific ties with Europe undermines the government’s stated aim to become a “science superpower” as core to economic recovery.

The CBI has called an association with the EU Horizon programme a “win-win”.

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Sky News understands the government will remain vague about what it plans to do until final negotiations with the EU over the Windsor Framework are complete.

But after more than two years of uncertainty, UK scientists are growing impatient.

“The minister for science and the new secretary of state [for Science Innovation and Technology] have indicated very, very clearly that association is the goal,” said Prof Smith.

“We now need that clearly stated by the prime minister.”