Lord Frost gives update on UK’s participation in Horizon Europe
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Science Minister George Freeman has announced that the UK will go full steam ahead with an alternative to the EU’s £80billion flagship innovation project if the bloc continues to block Britain from the scheme. During his keynote speech at UK Onward, Mr Freeman laid out his strategy to make the UK a “science superpower” in the post-Brexit era. But he warned that to do so, we cannot “allow UK research to be benched, spectating the incredibly exciting period in science and research”.
It comes after the EU blocked Britain from Horizon Europe, the leading international programme that provides prestigious grants and facilitates collaboration with European partners on crucial research projects on anything from quantum mechanics to AI.
This is despite Horizon being included as part of the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement following Britain’s departure from the bloc. While Mr Freeman said the UK will still give the bloc an opportunity to let it back into the scheme, he warned the bloc that Britain will now begin unleashing its global masterplan as a backup. It comes after more than two years of being blocked by Europe.
The Science Minister announced during his keynote speech: “There is an opportunity post-Brexit for us to unlock a much stronger global commitment as a science superpower and innovation nation to tackle global challenges.”
He later added: “We cannot allow great UK scientists and researchers to be benched, spectating on this incredibly exciting period in science and research. If we can’t play in the European Cup of science, we will simply have to go and play in the World Cup.
“We determined to make sure we have a much bolder offer in terms of global fellowship…we are looking at innovation and industrial technologies…and opportunities to deploy UK technologically much more strategically.
“Thirdly, a big global pillar, looking at how we can strengthen bilateral R+D (research and development) economies and opportunities for potential global collaborative multilateral projects around urgent challenges.”
Mr Freeman noted how he recently visited Japan, where he announced a £119million International Science Partnerships Fund to support UK researchers collaborating with scientists in Japan and around the world.
He also mentioned his visits to Israel and Switzerland to explore depending collaboration with these science powerhouses too. Now, he has suggested that even more deals are to follow.
Express.co.uk understands that a deal with the US is next on Mr Freeman’s agenda and Andrew Craig, Investment Manager for Conviction Life Science, says it is definitely achievable.
He told Express.co.uk: “It is an incredibly hard thing to forecast. But structurally, I would be quite bullish about Britain’s ability to do multilateral and bilateral deals because of the quality of our science.
“There is almost certainly scope to do deals with China and Japan. The US might be a bit of a law unto itself. But there around 11 or 12 biotech companies have chosen to float on the US stock market.
“I think that is very bad for the UK, but at least it is demonstrative of how seriously Americans take British science. If these British companies…can be supported by US investors, it stands to reason that there is something to do there between the UK and States.”
James Wilsdon, a Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield, has previously warned that it might not be so simple to replicate Horizon with a global backup plan.
He told Express.co.uk: “You can’t really have a Plan B for recreating big collaborative network projects. It is certainly a significant setback to the UK’s ambition to remain at the forefront of global science.
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“We know, and there is ample evidence, that collaborative research is in general higher quality in terms of the influence it has. And in a lot of areas, you can’t really tackle key problems without collaborations with key groups.
“Even in a post-Brexit context there’s plenty of countries outside of the EU who are members of Horizon, and the Government always said we would stay in the framework programmes even if we did Brexit. So in a sense, to not be in them is an unnecessary act of self-harm to British science.”
This is why Mr Freeman is intent on forming multilateral groupings, for instance with “three, four or five countries”” to target “some specific areas around the world where we have got real science and technology expertise and convening power, like in polar research for example”, the minister told Express.co.uk.
But for the here and now, the Government has ringfenced £480million that was supposed to be spent on the UK’s Horizon contribution, on alternative arrangements to the scheme.
As well as providing backup funding for researchers promised EU fellowships, which was renewed last year, it appears some of this cash could go towards new deals.
But the research community, which has repeatedly stressed that global collaboration is vital for British science, says it is still in the dark on how exactly the cash will be spent.
Robin Besson, from Research Fortnight, put to the minister during the keynote speech: “Its been two years now, the budget was supposed to be £2.3billion in this financial year, and a lot of that is still unspent. Is there a cut-off point at which the Government will start spending the money in earnest?
There has been £480million already… but the science community wants to know when we’re going to see more of that money.“
Mr Freeman said that the UK has already spent around £1billion or so, although he did not have a specific figure, admitted that this is less than the UK would have put in and even further under what it would have gotten back if it was still a part of the programme. Britain was set to contribute around £15billion in total over a seven-year period.
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