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UK science suffers as lawmakers continue to dither over Brexit negotiations

Horizons Europe carrot dangled amid protocol wrangling

A report from the UK House of Commons' European Scrutiny Committee has blamed delays in Brussels for choking off revenue streams to British institutions and businesses.

The UK departed the European Union following a 2016 referendum. One of the results was that UK businesses were no longer able to tender for lucrative contracts within the bloc.

The Brexit Divorce Bill uncomfortably laid out the facts back in 2018. The satellite navigation system Galileo was one victim despite substantial involvement from the UK in its development. Another was the Copernicus Earth monitoring programme; the UK was infamously snubbed when the European Space Agency (ESA) handed out six juicy contracts to institutions from the Continent.

While ESA is supposedly above all the Brexit squabbles, the move left the UK Space Agency struggling to conceal its upset and it told The Register it was "disappointed overall."

The good news is that in December the EU provisionally agreed to let the UK take part in its research programmes. The previous round of Copernicus and similar work might have been dubbed "lost opportunities" in the European Scrutiny Committee report, but the Horizon Europe fund (aimed at fostering research and innovation) and future Copernicus work could be in the offing.

According to the report, the gross UK payments for Horizon Europe alone would come to £15bn for the period 2021 to 2027, "provided the UK formally associates with the programme with retroactive effect to the start of 2021."

The maximum financial endowment of Horizon Europe is €95.5bn, dwarfing the €5.4bn of Copernicus.

Normally, the UK would expect at least a good portion of that funding to flow back in the form of grants and its operational contribution in a given year would depend on EU spending for programmes in which the UK participates. "Conceptually," the report explained, "this is not dissimilar to how the UK's EU budget contribution and rebate operated while it was an EU member state."

However, despite being given the nod for participation, the requirements to allow UK entities to bid have yet to be approved.

And that approval? It's tied to the outcome of the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations, which kicked off earlier this month.

"As a result," noted the committee, "new funding streams remain closed to British institutions and businesses for the time being, including those that want to tender for lucrative procurement contracts to provide technical and scientific equipment."

Should the UK's financial contribution end up being back-dated to the start of 2021, as agreed, then 10 months will have passed without UK businesses and institutions having access.

"With each passing day the opportunities are missed," said European Scrutiny Committee chairman Sir Bill Cash. "British institutions are left high and dry while science marches on without them and the returns on our financial contribution edge lower."

Negotiating a guest pass to the club you angrily stormed out of is always a tricky matter. ®

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