Pledges to protect UK involvement in vital scientific and medical research after Brexit are threatened by a £14bn funding gap, MPs are warning.
Boris Johnson opted to stay in the flagship £80bn Horizon Europe programme – which pools talent and ideas to achieve breakthroughs – even as his trade deal meant leaving other projects.
But it has now been revealed that the UK has legally agreed to pay £15bn over the six years to 2027, but is only able to say that £1bn of that sum has been found.
The funding gap emerged after ministers were accused, in March, of planning to slash domestic research funding by up to £1bn a year – with spending now having to come from the same pot.
The Commons European Scrutiny Committee quizzed Amanda Solloway, the science minister, in an attempt to find where the missing billions were going to come from.
“Her estimates predict the up-front cost of the pan-European fund to the Treasury to be £15bn over the seven-year programme,” the MPs say.
“The programme will then invest the majority of this back into UK science projects. However, the report found that just £1bn of this has so far been committed.”
The report warns of “substantial uncertainty about how the UK will meet its contribution”, given it is slashing its contributions to the EU after Brexit.
“Annual payments are likely to be £1bn early in the programme, climbing to around £3bn in later years,” it points out.
There are also fears that the UK could yet be excluded from some key areas of Horizon Europe, quantum and space, with the government now challenging the European Commission.
A Nobel Laureate was among leading scientists who warned of the consequences of failing to continue participation in Horizon Europe, warning the fight against Covid-19 would be damaged.
The axe was about to fall, last autumn, because the objected to the EU’s demand that it pay in 18 per cent of the budget – but appeared to have been resolved.
Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society, said the UK would no longer be a “science superpower” unless the dispute was resolved.
The Royal Society pointed 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.
In her evidence to the committee, Ms Solloway “stated only that the source of funding for future annual contributions will be determined at the spending review” in the autumn, the report says.
Some £250m was being spent on Horizon Europe association, with an overall boost to research and development funding of £1.5bn in 2020-21, she said.
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