Brexit boost: Oxford Prof says Britain 'could be better off' scrapping £15bn EU project

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Launched last year as the successor to the Horizon 2020 programme, Horizon Europe is a seven-year initiative to provide funding for scientific research and innovation. Horizon Europe — which is intended to boost European science spending by 50 percent by 2027 and was launched with a budget of €95.5billion (£80billion) — is open to applications from both within the EU and associated countries. Back in late 2020, alongside signing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK and the EU reached an agreement in principle that the UK would associate with Horizon Europe after Brexit — but this arrangement has yet to be finalised, more than a year later.

The UK’s association to Horizon Europe has been impeded by European officials in response to the Government’s threats to override the Northern Ireland protocol — a move which the EU has said amounts to a breach of the Brexit agreement.

The European Union’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, has said that it is “very regrettable” how British scientists were in danger of becoming “collateral damage” in the ongoing dispute.

Yesterday, Science Minister George Freeman delivered a speech in Brussels in a last-ditch effort to overcome this impasse, which has persisted for some 18 months.

Mr Freeman has said, however, that if talks fail, “we will have no choice but to launch a bold, global alternative to Horizon which provides world-class fellowships, stronger industry/innovation, and global research collaboration”.

This programme, he explained, would be funded using the £15billion presently ring-fenced for the UK’s contribution to Horizon Europe.

University of Oxford immunologist and geneticist Professor Sir John Bell told the BBC’s Today Programme: “I’m not sure we would be a lot worse off [out of Horizon Europe] and, in fact, we could be better off if we just set up our own programme.”

“Scientists don’t know where they are. We’re not in. It looks like we’re out. It’s running on. Time is going by, and I’m just not sure how much longer we should wait.”

The UK, he explained, might concentrate on replicating the functions that Horizon Europe undertook well — such as boosting international collaboration and its “terrific fellowship programme”.

Sir John added: “If we want to create a fellowship programme, we can create a fellowship programme. I mean, that’s not complicated. We can just get on and do it.

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Other members of the scientific community, however, have expressed scepticism about the UK’s ability to effectively replace Horizon Europe with a home-grown counterpart.

Campaigners from “Stick to Science”, for example, have argued that Horizon Europe has a world-renowned reputation for excellence.

Given this, they have said, it cannot be quickly and cheaply replaced elsewhere without having to compromise on ambition, efficiency and scale.

And in a letter sent last week to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, Swansea University’s vice-chancellor Paul Boyle wrote that “failure to secure UK association to Horizon Europe would be a lose-lose for health, wealth and wellbeing and would do a disservice to future generations in Europe and beyond.”



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