UK faces science ‘brain drain’ amid delays in joining EU research scheme

A delay in joining the European Union’s research and innovation scheme has “damaged the UK’s reputation” in the life sciences field, experts have claimed, with scientists “finding it much harder to bring the brightest and best into their labs”.

The Government was also warned the UK faces a “brain drain” of talent if not made more attractive globally.

Horizon Europe is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies.

It was initially launched in 2021 with a budget of 95.5 billion Euro (£81.8 billion), with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) issuing more than 2,000 grants worth in excess of £1 billion by April 2023.

The Government had negotiated membership of the programme in the Brexit withdrawal agreement but the EU went back on the deal after disputes emerged over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In June, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology confirmed it “remains in discussion on the UK’s involvement in EU research programmes and hopes that negotiations on Horizon Europe will be successful”.

However, it added any agreement “must be fair for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers and reflect the lasting impact of two years of EU delays to the UK’s association”.

Now, Cancer Research UK has called on the Government and EU to close a deal, saying it is in the interests of cancer researchers and people affected by cancer.

The charity conducted a poll of 84 experts, with 75% favouring an association to Horizon compared to 11% that favoured a UK-based alternative scheme.

Dr Ian Walker, executive director of policy, information and communications at Cancer Research UK, said the delay has “damaged the UK’s reputation as a hub for international collaborative research and investment in life sciences”.

“Cancer scientists are finding it much harder to bring the brightest and best into their labs,” he added.

“Not having access to Horizon Europe on the same terms as researchers in the EU would mean UK scientists are at the margins, rather than at the centre, of future funding opportunities.

“Association to Horizon Europe is overwhelmingly in the best interests of people living with cancer, and the scientists and clinicians researching new ways to beat it.

“Hopes have been raised that a deal is close, and it’s imperative that the UK and EU get association over the line.”

Dr Walker called on the UK and EU to “work intensively to unlock association to Horizon Europe and end the delays that have frustrated scientists”, adding “time is of the essence”.

Two months ago the Government extended the support provided to UK Horizon Europe applicants until the end of September.

Prof Julian Downward, head of the oncogene biology lab at the Francis Crick Institute, said: “We need Horizon Europe very badly. The current situation is damaging UK science every day.

“We are losing top junior faculty regularly who decide to move to EU countries so they can take up ERC grants.

“The UK faces a brain drain of scientific talent unless we can make the UK more attractive to international talent. Being able to bid for grants in Horizon Europe is an essential step towards that.”