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UK prepares to go it alone on post-Brexit science plan

Still no deal as new Science and Tech dept head claims Britain has 'global-facing alternative' in the wings

Among her public first acts since becoming UK science minister, Michelle Donelan has said Britain is prepared to go it alone on scientific research as it struggles to reach an agreement with the EU on the UK's association with the lucrative Horizon programme.

The move has been derided by scientists, who said quickly finding alternatives to the EU's €95.5 billion (c $91 billion) Horizon research funding program, which has provided major investment into UK science, would prove difficult.

Writing in the Telegraph newspaper, Donelan acknowledged the UK science sector is "keen to know about our future association with Horizon."

"I will engage with the sector as my top priority and work closely with them before I set out our position in the coming weeks, but I will not sit idly by while our researchers are sidelined. If we cannot associate, we are more than ready to go it alone with our own global-facing alternative, working with science powerhouses such as the US, Switzerland and Japan to deliver international science collaborations. The time for waiting is quickly coming to an end and I will not shy away from striking out alone," she said.

Since the UK left the EU, it has failed to negotiate an ongoing association with the Horizon programme. In February last year, then Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy minister George Freeman said the UK was in "a holding pattern" with the EU over the decision, while other arrangements around the UK's departure — including the Northern Ireland Protocol — were discussed.

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In June last year, UK government set out a new package of "transitional measures to ensure the stability and continuity of funding for researchers and businesses."

In August, then foreign secretary Liz Truss launched a "consultation" on the UK's inclusion of the programme, accusing the EU of being in "clear breach" of the Brexit agreement and "repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalize access to these important programmes."

But by September, it still didn't have a science minister, prompting the House of Lords science committee to write to then prime minister Truss to warn that the UK's strength in science was "under serious threat" unless it reaches its goal of spending at least 2.4 percent of GDP on R&D.

The UK's promise to go it alone, forging new relationship if the Horizon talks fail, has been slammed by UK science leaders.

Biological anthropologist and TV science show presenter Alice Roberts said the idea was "desperately sad. This will be disastrous for UK science."

Meanwhile, Adam Rutherford, geneticist and science historian, said the science minister "apparently has no idea how science works. You can't just forge new relationships, they take years and trust to build and nurture."

James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at UCL, told The Guardian that Donelan needs to temper her "plan B" hubris with a dose of realism. "There's no scenario in which life outside Horizon will be good for UK science. The sooner ministers stop pretending that it could be, and drop the 'science superpower' froth in favour of a level-headed assessment of UK options and priorities, the better. The policy goal should remain association. In absence of that, it's all about damage limitation."

Liz Truss famously lasted less than two months as UK prime minister. The UK has had five science ministers in as many years, while the ruling Conservative party faces re-election at the end of next year. ®

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