Researchers plead with EU and UK to leave science out of Brexit battle

LONDON — Senior scientists have urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen not to exclude Britain from the EU’s flagship research and development program because of a wider political row over Brexit.

A letter to von der Leyen, sent Thursday and seen by POLITICO, is written by the campaign group Stick to Science, and calls on the Commission to unblock the association of the U.K. and Switzerland to Horizon Europe.

Brussels has confirmed it won’t let the U.K. be part of its flagship research and innovation program for as long as the spat over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland drags on.

Switzerland, meanwhile, has been shut out over several bilateral rows with the EU, including the Alpine country’s level of alignment with EU law and its future financial contribution to the bloc’s cohesion policy.

The two countries have already missed more than one of the seven years over which the 2021-2027 program is due to run.

Scientists fear time is now running out to secure their association. The U.K. has warned the value-for-money case is decreasing as the program advances without British participation and is readying a replacement. Switzerland is meanwhile heading for a 2023 election in which politicians may want to avoid the sensitive issue of concessions to the EU.

“U.K. and Swiss association to Horizon Europe is currently tied together with broader political issues which, although of grave importance, are not linked to science,” the letter states. “The European research sector stands united in its agreement that researchers in the UK and Switzerland still have much to offer science in Europe. We must allow them to continue to contribute.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and one of the authors of the letter, told POLITICO in an interview that Horizon Europe is globally regarded as “the best internationally cooperative endeavor anywhere in the world.”

Farrar, who advised the U.K. government on COVID-19, said the world has a better chance of solving big problems if countries “are able to associate with [Horizon] than if we break up in a more individual, nationalistic approach.”

“If we look at the great challenges of the 21st century — climate change, inequality, pandemics, drug resistance, rare diseases, cancer — individual countries will struggle to find solutions to these problems on their own and we think the collective cooperation across Europe is a very, very powerful way of addressing these issues,” he said.

Farrar believes ministers in the U.K. and Switzerland understand the value of Horizon Europe.

But he said they must also grasp the long-term impact that failing to associate with the EU’s scheme would have on their own national research systems and wider European science.

And Farrar warned a lack of participation in the scheme will still be felt in 10 years’ time. “The next one or two months are going to be critical,” he said.

The U.K.’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has repeatedly said association to Horizon Europe remains its preferred option, but last week warned it would speed up work on Britain’s “plan B” over the summer while awaiting a call from Brussels.

The British replacement scheme is expected to be rolled out gradually and include different funding streams, with international fellowships for individual scientists in a bid to compensate for the loss of access to the European Research Council.

British ministers have also indicated that they will support collaborations with strong R&D nations such as the U.S. and Israel.

Farrar agreed Britain could replace EU funding for R&D projects with its own taxpayers’ cash, but said coming up with a domestic scheme “could take years” and won’t be able to provide some of Horizon Europe’s intangible benefits, including access to broad, international consortia made up from researchers with very diverse backgrounds.

“Scientists want to be part of a global community. You want to work with the best people and bring the most diverse voices together, and to me, that’s what is at stake here rather than the money,” he said. “We will not realize what we’ve lost until we’ve lost it.”

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