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Science minister blames EU for Horizon Europe delay

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

George Freeman underlines aim to join R&D programme but sector warns over “hostile” approach

The science minister has said he is “very disappointed by the persistent delays from the European Union” that have stymied the UK joining the bloc’s €95.5 billion R&D programme.

Writing in this edition of Research Fortnight, George Freeman reiterated the UK’s “strong preference” was to join the EU’s Horizon Europe funding programme, but said “if the EU stands in our way” the UK is ready to implement an alternative that is “just as good, or better”.

Freeman pledged there would be a “comprehensive alternative” if the UK stays out, adding: “We are very disappointed by the persistent delays from the EU in formalising associate membership.”

But some research advocates reacted with dismay to the tone of the minister’s remarks, amid concerns over the huge impact on partnerships between UK researchers and European partners if the former are blocked from accessing Horizon Europe.

As political disputes continue over Northern Ireland, the EU has refused to move ahead with finalising an already negotiated deal for UK researchers to have nearly full access to the programme. Of 18 non-EU countries with agreements to join Horizon Europe, only the UK, Albania, Morocco and Tunisia are yet to finalise their memberships.

Stephen Curry from Imperial College London said it was good to see the government wanting to stay in Horizon Europe, but that Freeman’s comments raise “serious doubts” for researchers. By putting the blame on the EU, the minister was overlooking the impact of the UK’s “virulent anti-EU rhetoric” in Brussels and other EU capitals, he said.

Mike Galsworthy, director of the group Scientists for EU, said the UK science community does not support “hostile government posturing”. He said the approach “will go down just as badly with the UK science community as the wider European one”.

Last month, Freeman announced a financial “safety net” for UK researchers selected for funding in the first wave of Horizon Europe calls. Until membership is finalised, UK research teams are unable to access European funds.

While many welcomed the safety net, Curry urged Freeman to also explain how any UK alternative will support the kind of multilateral collaborations funded by Horizon Europe. “In my discussions with colleagues on the continent it is clear that for them ‘Brexit means Brexit’,” said Curry. 

The European Commission declined to comment.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight