Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen have been discussing the terms upon which the UK could rejoin the scientific community. The UK must urgently seize on science superpower status outside the EU.
We are led to believe that Rishi Sunak is considering to agree to re-enter the Horizon programme - a European scientific research programme, open to non-EU associate members.
Scientific research has always benefitted from cross-national cooperation and the Horizon programme was initiated to ensure that happens. To do that, Horizon has associate members from other countries as far afield as Israel and even soon New Zealand.
That is why when the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, it was reasonably assumed that the UK would continue as an associate member with reasonable ease. After all other countries had similar status which had never been in the EU.
Yet the talks were very slow, mostly because the EU negotiators dragged their feet, being difficult about the terms and often lengthening the periods between key negotiations.
It was only later it emerged that the EU had been weaponizing the programme. Under pressure the EU finally admitted talks were stalled in retaliation over the row on Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
This was an astonishing way to behave, considering the EU had all along sung the praises of the Horizon programme as a pure science project without political interference. In conversations with UK scientists, it was clear that they saw the programme in that way too, many now preferring to blame the government for the delays citing Brexit.
It's no surprise that the UK was one of the top beneficiaries of the Horizon programme as the UK is in European terms, a science superpower, with 4 of our universities in the global top 10. In fact, the UK has 7 in the top 10 in Europe, with only Switzerland and two from Germany and only Germany of the EU has one in the top global 30.
The Prime Minister has expressed support for the ‘Pioneer’ alternative, which the UK government has created. It has a commitment to as much as we were spending on Horizon.
It would encompass discovery research and talent. With larger and more flexible awards than Horizon and it would support existing partnerships and new ones. There would even be additional funding for UK research infrastructures.
As the government mulls over the proposal on Horizon, the PM would do well to consider two issues. The first is does he believe he can trust the EU not to weaponise the Horizon programme again if we have issues elsewhere in our relationship? And does he believe that the terms of our agreement mean we would obtain a much higher percentage of the money we put in.
The potential for the UK to become the global hub for the growing industry of Med Tech is also tied in. As the country that produced the world’s first Covid vaccine by changing restrictive EU rules by being outside the EU. In so doing we were able to maximise that UK science talent and succeed, saving lives.
That’s why we should stop blaming Brexit but rather believe in ourselves more and maximise the work on bi-lateral agreements beyond the EU’s shores.
The PM’s decision should be based on the simple basis that there is no end to what the UK can achieve, despite the naysayers and even outside the EU and its Horizon programme.