UK science is at risk if it turns away from Horizon Europe, academic warns

1 Jun 2022

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Prof Paul Boyle warns that the UK is ‘close to the precipice’ of making an irreversible decision that will greatly impact research across Europe.

A leading UK academic has written to European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič pleading for a resolution to the situation impacting UK scientists collaborating on EU-backed projects.

The letter from Prof Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University and vice-president of the European University Association, calls for urgent support to secure the UK’s association with Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes.

Boyle is also a member of the board of Universities UK, a body representing 140 UK universities, and he wrote to the European Commission on their behalf.

He is one of a number of UK scientists seeking to ensure their ability to collaborate with colleagues across the EU is not “compromised by unrelated political disputes”.

‘Once the decision to shift away from participation in Horizon Europe is taken, we anticipate that it will not be possible to revert to association’
– PROF PAUL BOYLE

Horizon Europe launched in 2021 as a follow-up to the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. With a budget of €95.5bn, the overarching goals of the programme are to strengthen science and technology in the EU, boost the region’s capacity and competitiveness in innovation, and deliver research projects that serve the EU’s priorities.

Following Brexit, the plan was that the UK would be an associate of Horizon Europe. However, there have been ongoing delays in formalising an agreement to enable UK-based scientists, researchers and businesses to access funding under the EU programme on equivalent terms to those in EU countries.

In his letter, Boyle warned that UK science is “close to the precipice” as the UK government is making plans for a domestic alternative to Horizon Europe. He believes this instrument could be in place as soon as this month, and that it would have serious consequences.

“Once the decision to shift away from participation in Horizon Europe is taken, we anticipate that it will not be possible to revert to association,” Boyle warned.

Boyle expressed the exasperation felt by researchers across Europe who have “been waiting for 17 months for this arrangement to be confirmed”.

“Many of our members have reported that their researchers have been forced to leave research consortia that are working on projects that would have a tangible positive impact on European and global prosperity, like improving climate data and addressing food security in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Boyle.

“The situation is deteriorating every day that the uncertainty drags on.”

Boyle continued that the failure to secure support for research in the UK through Horizon Europe would be a “lose-lose for health, wealth and wellbeing”.

In May, Politico reported that an official letter was sent to a UK politician which said that Brussels won’t let the UK be part of Horizon Europe while the issues surrounding post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland drag on.

The issue stems from the UK’s recent plans to rewrite elements of the Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal that protects the Good Friday Agreement.

EU ambassador to the UK João Vale de Almeida said it is “very regrettable” that British scientists would become “collateral damage” over the disputes.

With additional reporting from Leigh Mc Gowran.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com