Relief at rejoining flagship research scheme tempered by anger over loss of top academics since Brexit
Britain may have rescued its scientific fortunes with a last-minute decision to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme – but the move should not be treated as a cause for jubilation, scientists have warned.
The sluggish pace at which the agreement was reached has had too severe an impact on UK research for widespread elation, say many British researchers, who believe that science in this country suffered a major blow after being locked out of the £82bn programme for almost three years since Brexit. Putting it right has taken far too long, they argue.
Since 2020 the UK government has been negotiating to rejoin Horizon after its membership was blocked because of the protracted dispute over Northern Ireland’s trading rules.
Last week’s final announcement that ministers had decided to go ahead with rejoining Horizon was greeted with joy and relief by many senior scientists.
But some of their colleagues have since warned that being locked out of Horizon for so long has done irreversible damage to UK science. This was a time when Britain could have taken key leading roles in major programmes on climate change, AI and new medicines.
“There is little reason for celebration for something that should have happened years ago,” said Prof Bart De Strooper, a group leader of the UK Dementia Research Institute at University College London. “For the past few years we have faced complete uncertainty about what is happening in key research areas. Britain used to dominate the Horizon programme, and it will take a long time to get back to such a position.”
This point was reiterated by Prof Sir John Hardy, a neurogeneticist at the same institute. “Our absence from Horizon for the past three years has had a number of detrimental effects that have made the UK less attractive as a place to do science,” he told the Observer.
“We have not been part of the great science that Horizon funds and we have lost the trust of European colleagues. Will we leave Horizon again in future, they might ask. Many scientists have simply left the UK and, post Brexit, moving between the UK and labs in the EU has become a slow, costly, bureaucratic nightmare. All other things being equal, why would people want to do that?”
Other scientists were more cautious, however. “I don’t know what took so long, but this news will make it much easier for those of us who spend time trying to recruit the best scientists from around the world to get them to come to Britain,” said Prof Matthew Freeman, head of the Dunn School of Pathology, at Oxford University.
Prof Martin Rees, emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University, added that the decision to rejoin Horizon represented a rare level of consensus across the scientific community in the UK and on mainland Europe. “However,” he said, “we have all been frustrated by the unconscionable delay in reaching this agreement.”
Source : The Guardian