UK will only join EU Horizon scheme on ‘favourable terms’ – Science Secretary

The UK will not commit to joining the EU’s flagship research programme at any cost, the Science Secretary has said, prompting criticism from the scientific community.

Michelle Donelan, who was recently appointed Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, said joining the scheme is “plan A”, but that the Government is still developing “plan B”.

“It would have to be on acceptable and favourable terms,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

“It would have to be value for money for the taxpayer and we couldn’t afford to wait another two years of negotiating this and leave our researchers in limbo.”

There have been hopes that Rishi Sunak’s new deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could pave the way for Britain to access the 100 billion euro programme.

But Downing Street said the Prime Minister is “taking stock of our future corporation” on research programmes with the EU including Horizon.

Asked why that was necessary, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “Obviously, it’s something we’ve been pressing the EU for for the last two years. We’ve made ambitious alternative domestic arrangements, ready to support the UK’s R&D sector, where we have a commitment of £20 billion a year.

“We have announced further extension to June 30 for financial guarantees to the UK’s Horizon Europe applicants so that people continue to get the same level of support while we consider the best approach.”

The official said he was unaware if there were “formal talks” taking place with the EU. “I think it’s the Government considering the best approach currently rather than entering into formal talks with the EU,” he said.

Scientists who have been clamouring for clarity on Horizon access reacted with dismay.

Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees said: “It’s a bit disappointing that the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have made any unequivocal statements of this priority and I think the scientific community is, I think, pretty united, that this should be the top priority and done as early as possible.”

A row erupted last month between leading scientists and the Government, with the Treasury criticised for taking back £1.6 billion it had allocated for research and which had been set aside for UK involvement in Horizon.

Mr Sunak on Monday announced plans for the UK to be a science and technology “superpower” by the end of the decade.

Funding of more than £360 million has been promised by the Government, as the Prime Minister hopes a science and technology framework will place the UK at the forefront of new technologies including artificial intelligence and supercomputing.

Mr Sunak warned that the UK “can only stay ahead with focus, dynamism and leadership”, as the new 10-point plan promised to use the post-Brexit freedoms to craft “pro-innovation regulations” and develop a “pro-innovation culture” in the public sector.

Michelle Donelan
Science Secretary Michelle Donelan (PA)

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said it was “reassuring” to see a plan aimed at cementing the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower.

But, he said, “one of the first steps to turning words into action must be securing full association to the EU funding programmes”.

“The extension of the funding underwrite announced today is a welcome intervention, but it is yet another sticking plaster, when the ultimate goal needs to be speedy association now that the barriers to this have been removed by the EU.

“We need to see a firm commitment from the Prime Minister to delivering full association.”

Included in the framework are plans to boost private and public investment in research and development, as well as using the Government’s buying power to boost innovation through public sector procurement.

It also pledges to ensure that researchers have access to the “best physical and digital infrastructure” for research and development, as part of efforts to attract the best talent to Britain.

The new plan is backed by an initial set of projects, including a £250 million investment in AI, quantum technology and engineering biology, as well as the publication of a new review of UK research by Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute.

Sir Paul said: “It is absolutely right, as the Prime Minister has said, that the future of the UK depends upon research, science and technology.

“Only by being a leading science nation can the UK drive a sustainable economy, increased productivity and generate societal benefits such as improved healthcare and protecting the environment.”