The UK’s blocking of EU science programs is bad for everyone

The UK launched a formal appeal against its exclusion from the EU’s science programs in August – and called on the bloc on Monday to allow it access again.

The UK government says that taking part in Horizon Europethe EU’s flagship program — funding research, nuclear regulator Euratom, and the Copernicus Satellite Monitoring Group — was outlined in the post-Brexit trade agreement. Since then, the UK claims it has been blocked.

The UK’s exit agreement with the EU allows it to participate in Horizon Europe, as long as it also contributes to the funding of the programme.

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But according to the European Commission, the UK’s status in the program will not be confirmed until the deadlock over the Northern Ireland Protocol is solved.

The protocol is a special agreement that essentially keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s internal market and customs union, to establish a hard border between Northern Ireland – which is part of the UK – and the Republic of Ireland, which is a is an EU Member State.

Politicizing international cooperation

At the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly held on Monday and Tuesday, Europe’s Minister Leo Docherty said:

“We will all benefit from the UK’s participation and it will not entail any conceivable detriment to the EU or its member states, but the EU has politicized scientific cooperation by linking it to the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

He continued: “Putting politics in the way of scientific collaboration limits human potential and harms everyone.”

At the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which was held on Tuesday. Credit: UK Parliament/ YouTube

While Maroš Šefčovič — the Vice-President of the European Commission — noted that the EU and the UK could do more together, including research, he stated that essential parts of the mutually negotiated and agreed terms are not respected.

This comes after the UK government’s decision to pass legislation that could override the Northern Ireland Protocol. The account is reaching its final stage in the House of Lords this week, but has not yet been passed into law.

Nevertheless, Šefčovič said the EU is not looking for “a political victory”, but only “wants to solve the problem”.

“I believe it can be done if there is political will; I’m sure we can really solve it in a few weeks as we both sides of our negotiating teams know these topics from all angles,” he added.

Meanwhile, the UK is not waiting for access to Horizon Europe. According to Doherty: “The UK’s participation would be a clear win-win situation for the UK and the EU, but the UK cannot wait much longer. The EU’s approach creates intolerable uncertainty for our research and business communities.”

In fact, Britain signed on Thursday a scientific cooperation agreement with Switzerlandwhich has also been excluded from the Horizon programme.

A division of scientific cooperation is bad for Europe as a whole

We spoke to several experts about the impact this division between scientists from the UK and the European Union could have. Nadeem Gabbani — founder of exobotics, a UK-based satellite company – told us that “scientific collaboration is hugely important and beneficial for everyone involved.” He believes that the combination of “some of the brightest minds in the world” in Europe and the UK could help deliver “new scientific and technological advances”.

As an example of the importance of cross-border cooperation, Gabbani cited the European Space Agency, which has collaborated with a large number of startups and SMEs, both from the UK and the EU.

“We then, helped by this funding and support, have seen benefits such as a 6.7% growth in jobs in the UK aerospace industry and annual turnover that rose to £6.5bn by 2021,” he explained.

The European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. Credit: ESA

The Joint European Torus Experimental Nuclear Fusion Reactorhoused in the UK and largely funded through Horizon is another example.

According to David Hammond, Partner at HLK Chemistry & Life Sciences Team, it “embodies” how international cooperation can benefit society as a whole.

But beyond academic research, Hammond notes, Horizon has funded numerous collaborations between UK and EU companies. This program has helped address “real problems that any company couldn’t solve on its own.”

These types of collaborations not only benefit the EU by tapping into the UK’s scientific community, but also enable businesses to thrive and grow, Hammond added.

And if we go one step further and try to look at the big picture, multinational partnerships are critical to combating the most pressing global problems.

A company that does this is: M square lasers, a UK-based company specializing in quantum and photonics technology. The CEO – Dr. Graeme Malcom, OBE – told us it is working with “several EU partners to develop systems to support the collection of data on pollutant gases such as CO2 and methane.” This is then used to improve the collective fight against global warming.

Malcom stresses the need to put politics aside and resume EU-UK scientific cooperation: “It is crucial that by advocating for cooperation – rather than competition – we will maximize our success in tackling the climate emergency .”

And this is the key. Stopping scientific collaboration is the kind of petty point scoring that has long-term consequences. It’s in no one’s interest to take something as important as research — which affects not only startups and companies, but also potential world-saving technologies — and turn it into a political tool.

Let’s hope this issue is resolved quickly and that Europe’s brightest minds can work together again.


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