Science minister George Freeman is locked in a struggle with the Treasury over post-Brexit research funding as fears grow of a “brain drain” if Britain fails to forge new global science collaborations.
Allies of Freeman say he fears that Treasury “penny-pinching” could undercut his attempt to devise a Plan B in the event that UK scientists are shut out from the EU’s flagship €95bn Horizon project.
Freeman wants to launch a Plan B research plan, based on global collaboration, in September but has yet to secure cabinet approval or Treasury agreement on precise funding arrangements.
Britain’s Brexit deal envisaged the UK’s continued participation in Horizon, but that has been blocked by the EU in light of prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit treaty.
UK scientists have warned that Britain’s exclusion from Horizon — to which it had committed £15bn over seven years — will cause huge damage to research collaboration and harm science in the UK and EU.
The European Research Council said on Thursday that it was terminating the preparation of 115 grants offered to UK-based researchers, and that 19 of them had agreed to move their projects abroad so as to keep their funding.
Although the UK government has promised to pay those who stay in the UK a sum equivalent to their lost ERC grant, scientists say this compensation would not make up for the lost prestige and collaborative opportunities provided by the European body.
Freeman told the publication Research Professional News he was “really shocked and appalled” that scientists were being “weaponised” in the political dispute with Brussels. “It’s the wrong way to treat world-class researchers,” he said.
Colleagues of Freeman say he is concerned about a “brain drain” of British scientists unless his Plan B is fully funded by the Treasury, and that he fears £2bn could be “topsliced” from the science budget.
The 2021 Treasury Spending Review said: “In the event that the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe, the funding allocated to Horizon association will go to UK government R&D programmes, including those to support new international partnerships.”
Officials close to negotiations between Freeman and the Treasury insist this commitment still stands. But there is a debate about the “profiling” of spending which Freeman fears could translate into budget cuts and the speed at which proposed spending can be got “out of the door”.
“Without a ringfence, George believes the UK offer won’t be credible,” said one person close to Freeman. “We have to avoid an Horizon brain drain and make this a moment of global science and technology leadership.” The person added that Freeman hoped to resolve the matter and win cabinet approval before the summer break.
Last year’s spending review set aside £6.8bn for Horizon and other EU science programmes with future allocations — or to Freeman’s Plan B — to be decided in the next review period.
But the Treasury has pointed out that the full £15bn earmarked for Horizon was based on an assumption that the UK contributed from the start of the programme in 2021/22, which did not happen.
The dispute with Brussels over Horizon is potentially damaging for Boris Johnson’s government, which is struggling to prove the “benefits of Brexit” against a backdrop of dismal trade and investment data.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said its first choice was to take part in EU science programmes and that “it’s hugely disappointing the EU continues to politicise scientific co-operation by delaying our accession to Horizon”.
“If the UK is unable to associate soon, and in good time to make full use of the opportunities they offer, we will introduce a comprehensive alternative to promote global science, research and innovation collaboration.”