Hundreds of British researchers were promised prestigious EU grants as part of Horizon Europe, the £80billion programme the UK was supposed to take part in so its scientists could collaborate with European partners. But despite the UK’s participation being a feature of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the bloc told Britain it cannot get involved until the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol gets resolved.
As the furious Brexit back-and-forth rumbles on, UK-based researchers promised Horizon funding remain stuck in limbo.
Dr Payam Gammage, a world-leading expert from the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, won £2million in EU funding.
But his access to those funds remains blocked because of the dispute.
He has said he is considering moving abroad to an associated member state just so he can access those funds, an ultimatum issued by the EU several months ago.
While the former Science Minister George Freeman had been devising a masterplan to account for Britain’s permanent exclusion, his resignation has left the future of Horizon up in the air.
Although the UK’s participation was somewhat reliant on Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is now vying to become the next Prime Minister, to strike a renegotiated Brexit deal, Mr Freeman did promise that researchers would receive Government funding to account for the possibility of cutting European funding.
But Dr Ian Walker of Cancer Research UK said it is a “gamble” to rely on applying to the UK Research and Innovation for funding.
He lashed out over the uncertainty “impasse”, which has dragged on for 19 months.
Now researchers like Dr Gammage are being forced to choose between the “gamble”, or waiting for Horizon participation to be ratified – leaving them unable to access the EU grants until this happens.
Dr Walker is now urging the next Prime Minister and Government to “break the impasse”, in which cancer research has been “tangled up”.
He said: “Cancer research is tangled up in the ongoing political dispute on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The UK’s future involvement in Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship programme for funding scientific research with a budget of more than £80billion hangs precariously in the balance.”
But he warned that the UK cannot walk away now, as this would put cancer scientists and patients in the UK, EU and elsewhere in jeopardy.
He added: “The EU’s recent flagship Cancer Mission is funding talented scientists working together through Horizon Europe to support the research needed to deliver significant improvements in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
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“UK scientists shouldn’t feel the need to make the choice between moving to an EU member state to guarantee Horizon Europe funding or taking the gamble of a UK only replacement.
“Some may end up voting with their feet which will have dire consequences for the UK’s ambitions to become a science superpower.”
And he urged the politicians involved to stop using cancer research as a “political football”.
He said: “My message to them is simple – it’s time to stop using cancer research as a political football. Both the UK and EU must keep the commitment to an association agreement alive, and the new Prime Minister must commit to protecting the UK’s planned financial commitment to Horizon Europe in full.
“Plan A is still the best option for British science and the British people.”