UK science minister clashes with Treasury over post-Brexit funding


Science Minister George Freeman is locked in a fight with the Treasury over post-Brexit research funding as fears grow of a ‘brain drain’ if Britain fails to forge new collaborations world scientists.

Freeman’s allies say he fears Treasury penny-pinching could undermine his bid to devise a plan B in case British scientists are shut out of the EU’s flagship €95 billion 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 specific funding arrangements.

The UK Brexit deal provided for the UK’s continued participation in Horizon, but this was blocked by the EU in light of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, which makes part of the Brexit treaty.

British scientists have warned that excluding Britain from Horizon – to which it had committed £15billion over seven years – would cause huge damage to research collaboration and harm science in the world. UK and EU.

The European Research Council said on Thursday that it was stopping the preparation of 115 scholarships offered to UK-based researchers, and that 19 of them had agreed to move their projects overseas in order to retain their funding.

Although the UK government has promised to pay those who remain in the UK a sum equivalent to their lost ERC grant, scientists say this compensation would not make up for the lost prestige and opportunities for collaboration provided by the European body.

Freeman told the Research Professional News publication that he was “genuinely shocked and appalled” that the scientists were “armed” in the political dispute with Brussels. “It’s the wrong way to treat world-class researchers,” he said.

Freeman’s colleagues 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 will be ‘sliced ​​off’ of the scientific budget.

The 2021 Treasury Spending Review said: “In the event that the UK is unable to partner with Horizon Europe, funding allocated to the Horizon Partnership will go towards UK Government R&D programmes, including those intended to support new international partnerships.”

Officials close to the negotiations between Freeman and the Treasury insist that this commitment still stands. But there is debate over spending “profiling” which Freeman says could result in budget cuts and how quickly proposed spending can be “opened up”.

“Without closing, George believes the UK offer will not be credible,” a person close to Freeman said. “We must avoid a brain drain from Horizon and make it a moment of global leadership in science and technology.” The person added that Freeman hoped to resolve the issue and get cabinet approval before the summer break.

Last year’s spending review earmarked £6.8bn for Horizon and other EU science programs with future allocations – or Freeman’s Plan B – to be decided over the next exam session.

But the Treasury pointed out that the full £15bn allocated to Horizon was based on the assumption that the UK had contributed from the start of the program 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” amid dismal trade and investment data.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said its first choice was to participate in EU science programs and that “it is extremely disappointing that the EU continues to politicize cooperation science by delaying our membership of Horizon”.

“If the UK is unable to partner soon, and in time to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers, we will introduce a comprehensive alternative to promote global collaboration in science, research and innovation.”


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