UK scientists stripped of leadership roles for Europe-wide projects in fresh Brexit clash

·3-min read

UK scientists are being stripped of leadership roles for Europe-wide projects, in fresh evidence of how Brexit clashes are damaging vital research cooperation.

The EU has told a Cambridge University astrophysicist studying the Milky Way that he cannot be in charge of a new project – because the UK is not part of the £80bn Horizon Europe programme.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal was meant to rescue participation – to pool talent and ideas to achieve scientific breakthroughs – but his plans to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol continue to block that.

It is “collateral damage” from what Brussels sees as a breach of an international agreement, the EU ambassador to the UK has warned.

Now Nicholas Walton, a research fellow at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy, has revealed he has lost his leadership role in a new €2.8m European Space Agency project.

Carsten Welsch, a physicist at Liverpool University, who has won €2.6m in funding for long-term research on a novel plasma generator, said he faced the same threat of having to hand over leadership to an EU institution.

“As the UK’s association to Horizon Europe isn’t completed, we are now at real risk of losing our leadership in this consortium and to be marginalised,” he told The Guardian.

“This is really heartbreaking, given the long and extremely successful track record in scientific collaboration between the UK and EU,” he said.

The setback has emerged as UK scientists warn the government must decide in the next few months whether to abandon hopes of remaining in the Horizon scheme altogether.

Some £6bn has been set aside for a three-year go-it-alone science fund, which scientists see as inferior to Horizon – but which must start to be spent soon, if that is the reality.

Adrian Smith, president of The Royal Society, said: “The window for association is closing fast, and we need to ensure that political issues do not get in the way of a sensible solution.

“We have always been very clear that association is the preferred outcome for protecting decades of collaborative research, and the benefits this has brought to people’s lives across the continent and beyond.”

Over the last six-year period of the Horizon scheme, finishing in 2020, the UK received £1.5bn – more than any other country and a fifth of the total handed out by Brussels.

Among the programme’s successes are everything from leukaemia treatments to hydrogen cells that fuel zero-emission buses.

The Brexit deal committed the UK to pay £15bn over the six years to 2027 – even as it pulled out of other EU agencies and EU-wide programmes – but that has yet to be triggered, as the stalemate drags on.

Mr Welsch said domestic funding is allowing the UK to contribute as “associated partners” to the Horizon scheme, without receiving EU cash.

But he warned: “UK institutions can no longer lead projects, can no longer be in charge of project milestones and, overall, it feels as if the UK is losing important leadership.”

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