UK sets out £6bn Plan B science fund if EU blocks link with Horizon

The UK is planning to spend £6 billion over three years on a new global science fund, should the EU refuse to let the country participate in the Horizon Europe research programme, the government’s priority option.

George Freeman, Science Secretary, told the FT he was working on a new international fund, known in science policy circles as Plan B, while remaining hopeful that Brussels would grant Britain membership Associate member of Horizon Europe – the main EU funding program for research and innovation with a budget of 95 billion euros over seven years.

Britain’s alignment with Horizon Europe was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit deal but has yet to happen, given continued disagreements between the EU and UK over Northern Ireland and other issues. Switzerland remains closed for the same political reasons.

“Our location is still something we want to associate with. It is hoped that perhaps after the French election and the resolution of the various issues still being discussed around Brexit, alignment will be possible,” said Freeman, who has campaigned heavily for Remain in 2016 referendum said.

He declined to say how long the UK would wait before abandoning Horizon but said the government was actively developing a “coherent and ambitious” alternative plan for international science. . . builds on the elements of Horizon that researchers find most valuable: global scholarship, strong industry challenge funding, an innovative mission around tomorrow’s technology. Outside of Horizon, we have the freedom to be more global,” he said.

Freeman said he was “reaching out to scientific allies” outside the EU, including Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and others in the Asia-Pacific region. With Switzerland also feeling “very disappointed” by its exclusion from Horizon Europe so far, he will meet the Swiss science minister on Monday.

“One problem with Plan B is that we don’t really know what it will involve,” said Daniel Rathbone, head of policy for Campaign for Science and Engineering, a grassroots pressure group. . “With Horizon Europe, we know what we are getting and the deal is ready to go if politics allows.”

Pressure for Brussels to acknowledge the UK has not only come from British scientists but also from their continental counterparts, who maintain that a failure to strike a deal would harm European science. Europe in general.

“With the first Horizon Europe funding deals approaching and new appeals coming soon, the UK consortium must be completed without further delay,” hundreds of research bodies said. and EU science told Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in a joint letter last year.

“Uncertainty has led to a downward spiral in collaboration between scientists in the UK and the continent,” said James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.

He agrees the government must prepare a Plan B but should be more open to UK researchers about what it can and cannot achieve. “We could create a global funding program, but it would be very difficult to recreate the entire structure of Horizon Europe’s partnership,” says Wilsdon.

Freeman’s appointment as science minister last September was warmly welcomed by most UK scientists, who appreciated his knowledge of the field from pre-conference times. institute founded high-tech companies and later became minister of life sciences in David Cameron’s coalition government.

Rathbone says Freeman still has support from the research community. “He was running on the ground,” he said. “He has a lot of ideas and enthusiasm for the field and is engaging with scientists.”

Although a spending review in the fall cut the increase public R&D funding to £20 billion by 2024-25 from the £22 billion promised in 2020, the researchers are still expecting an increase in real terms from the £14.9 billion allocated in the year now.

Besides Horizon Europe, another matter for Minister Freeman is the new Advanced Research and Invention Authority (Aria) the government is setting up with a budget of £800 million to carry out research of this magnitude. high-risk, modeled after the US Defense Advanced Study. Project Agency (Darpa).

Aria is the personal enthusiasm of the prime minister’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings, who left No 10 Downing Street in November 2020, and some fear that the project is losing momentum. But it received a boost last week when Peter HighnamA highly regarded computer scientist who is now a deputy director of Darpa, has agreed to become Aria’s first chief executive officer for a five-year term starting in May.

“When Peter Highnam, who to those unfamiliar with him is the science of football management of Alex Ferguson, wanted to become CEO of this exciting new company, it was a confirmation. very big on our planning and our science,” said Freeman. “We are currently in the process of appointing a chair to complement Peter.”

“We created Aria in such a way that there was no interference and no management from Whitehall,” added Freeman. “This is the ultimate laboratory to attract the world’s best scientists and use our infrastructure to do research to answer the big questions facing the globe in the 21st century. “.

Aria’s President and CEO, along with a small team of program managers, will have the flexibility and power to select and pursue projects without interference, compared to their peers. their degrees at UK Research and Innovation, the country’s main scientific funding body.

Although ministers have been criticized for exempting Aria from freedom of information requirements that other public agencies are subject to, Freeman stressed: “This is public money and Aria will be held accountable. before Parliament. . . But we wanted to be able to say to Peter Highnam: ‘You have the freedom to create here an exciting discovery science living lab without the short-term funding constraints that are so common, and bureaucracy that dominates so much global research’. “

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