UK science stuck in 'holding pattern' on EU funding by Brexit, says minister

This may be time for plan B

UK minister for science and research George Freeman has admitted that vital EU funding for research is in limbo while the nation continues to negotiate Brexit sticking points, namely Northern Ireland and fishing rights.

Speaking to Parliament's Science and Technology Committee late last week, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy minister George Freeman said the geopolitics of Anglo-European relations – in particular Anglo-French relations – around fishing and the Northern Ireland Protocol were complicating the decision over "association" with the European Commission's €95bn Horizon research programme.

"I think it's pretty clear that we're in a holding pattern, with our association not being granted," he told the committee.

In January 2021 the post-Brexit trade deal negotiated between Britain and the EU opened the door for the island nation to become an "associate" with Horizon Europe from outside the EU. It offered the possibility that UK scientists could apply for R&D funds from the multi-billion euro kitty. But that "association" decision is itself subject to negotiations.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the Brexit deal the UK signed up to, but almost since formal departure from the EU it has been trying to renegotiate it. Cabinet Office minister and lead negotiator Lord Frost threw a spanner in the works when he resigned in December last year.

Now Northern Ireland's first minister — part of the region's devolved administration — has resigned in protest over the trading arrangements. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is leading negotiations.

Freeman told the committee his department has a plan B — a replacement system for Horizon — but he didn't know when it might be needed. In the meantime, Treasury funding might be trickled into the system.

"We're pretty advanced in developing internal thinking about a so-called Plan B. It's about how we make sure that if we're outside of Horizon, we can continue to be active European partners. [We have] no firm date yet, because we're in some quite weird geopolitics.

"We're in the early stages and they're some quite positive signals. But we can't go into a financial year with ongoing uncertainty. So internally, our thinking is that we need to be ready in the new financial year to start to release some of the funding that we've put aside for Horizon," he said.

He said the Chancellor of the Exchequer had put down £5bn to fund local programmes if the UK were placed outside Horizon. More clarity might emerge following April's French elections, Freeman suggested. ®

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