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UK launches 'consultation' with EU over exclusion from science programs

Billions in funding at stake as PM hopeful Liz Truss says bloc 'in breach of agreement'

The UK government has launched formal consultations with the EU over the failure to secure its inclusion in the EU's €95.5 billion ($97.6 billion) research funding program since the island nation left the world's richest trading bloc.

Ministers said they wanted to end persistent delays to the UK's access to EU scientific research programs, including Horizon Europe – the EU's "key funding programme for research and innovation" – under a mechanism they claim is set out in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) signed in December 2020 to govern the UK's departure from the EU.

Although the EU and UK have recognized cooperation in science and technology research would benefit both sides, the UK's position on aspects of the Brexit deal relating to trade through Northern Ireland has put plans on hold.

In June, the UK government passed legislation allowing it to unilaterally rip up its obligations relating to Northern Ireland – part of the UK with an open land border with EU member state Ireland. The move risks a trade war with the EU, which has since launched legal proceedings.

Seemingly willing to serve an oven-ready irony pie, foreign secretary Liz Truss said: "The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes. We cannot allow this to continue. That is why the UK has now launched formal consultations and will do everything necessary to protect the scientific community."

Truss is in the running to be Conservative Party leader and the Prime Minister to replace Boris Johnson.

The government said the UK negotiated access to a range of EU science and innovation programs as part of the TCA in 2020 but the EU had refused to finalize UK access, causing serious damage to research and development in both the UK and EU member states.

The delays had prevented the UK from accessing Horizon Europe, the EU's key funding program for research and innovation, as well as Copernicus, the Earth observation program, it said.

However, a European Commission spokesman told The Register the TCA did not provide a specific obligation or deadline for the EU to associate the UK with union programs.

"The Commission takes note of the UK's request for consultation and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules, as set out in the TCA," he said.

In February, then UK minister for science and research George Freeman admitted that vital EU funding for research was in limbo due to ongoing Brexit sticking points including Northern Ireland and fishing rights.

Speaking to Parliament's Science and Technology Committee, Freeman, who resigned in July, said: "I think it's pretty clear that we're in a holding pattern, with our association not being granted."

Freeman told the committee his department had 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. He said the Chancellor of the Exchequer – Rishi Sunik at the time – had put down £5 billion ($6 billion) to fund local programs if the UK were placed outside Horizon.

Under its previous incarnation, Horizon 2020, funding for technology specifically included money given to open-source Microsoft Office rival Collabora, ProtonMail parent Proton Technologies AG, the Unconventional Computing Laboratory in Bristol, the Li-Fi group, graphene researchers in the UK, and the European Processor Initiative, which is working on a homegrown RISC-based chip project.

Earlier this month, a report by the Lords Science and Technology Committee slammed the UK's efforts to become a sci-tech "superpower" by 2030.

The peers, headed by committee chair Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge), an engineer with a PhD in fracture mechanics, said there were no "specific, measurable outcomes," no delivery plan, a short-termist outlook, and "frequent policy changes."

King added: "On the international stage, the failure to associate to Horizon Europe, and recent cuts to Official Development Assistance, have damaged the UK's reputation. The UK cannot be a science superpower in isolation; relationships must be repaired."

She said the UK was on track to make the goal of becoming a "science superpower" an "empty slogan." ®

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