Nobel Laureate warns Covid fight will be harmed if UK crashes out of Horizon programme

Fears growing that Brexit funding squabble will end participation in £80bn research scheme - hindering medical breakthroughs

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 12 November 2020 13:50
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Brexit briefing: How long until the end of the transition period?

A Nobel Laureate is warning that the fight against Covid-19 will be damaged if Boris Johnson allows the UK to crash out of Europe’s vital research scheme.

Fears are growing that Brexit will also end participation in the flagship £80bn Horizon Europe programme, which pools talent and ideas to achieve medical and industrial breakthroughs.

The UK has objected to the EU’s demand that it pay in 18 per cent of the budget – because it would receive no rebate if it failed to receive the same proportion of overall funding.

Now Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society, says the UK will not be a “science superpower” unless the dispute is resolved.

“Confidence is needed now to ensure that the talented individuals and expert collaborations that we need to drive innovation, rebuild the economy, and tackle shared global challenges, continue to thrive when we need them most,” he has written.

He added: “Critically, this will help avert major disruption to our science capability in the coming months as we respond to Covid-19.”

Mr Ramakrishnan’s letter is the second intervention by some of the country’s leading scientists in recent days, with just 7 weeks to go until the end of the transition period, on 31 December.

A similar plea was made by Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute, and Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Sage Covid advisory committee.

“We urge you to use the final stages of talks to find common ground,” they said in their letter to the prime minister.

“A decision against participation in Horizon Europe would have fundamental and long-term consequences. Domestic efforts to replicate the scheme cannot replace the value of being part of the world’s largest multi-lateral programme.”

Mr Ramakrishnan’s letter pleaded with Mr Johnson to “send a clear signal of the UK’s intention to become a responsible and visionary global science superpower”.

The Royal Society points out that the UK has received £1.5bn from Horizon programmes over six years – more than any other country and a fifth of the total.

Among the programme’s successes are everything from leukaemia treatments to hydrogen cells that fuel zero-emission buses.

The warnings come amid fresh fears of border meltdown on 1 January, inflicting “lorry queues at Dover and empty shelves in Northern Ireland”.

But a government spokesperson said, of the long-stalled exit talks: “Negotiations are ongoing.

“We’ve been clear that, where it’s in the UK’s interests, we are considering participating in EU programmes, including Horizon Europe, where they represent a real benefit to British people and industry, provided the UK can secure participation on acceptable terms.”

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