the UK’s vague strategy for funding post-Brexit science

Britain’s science minister George Freeman (left) resigned last week alongside other ministers, forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign on July 7.Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Images/Alamy, Stuart Brock/Anadolu Agency/Getty

After six years of arduous negotiations, it looks increasingly likely that UK researchers will lose access to EU research funding because of Brexit.

The crushing loss would leave the EU’s flagship research program Horizon Europe, which over seven years will disburse nearly 100 billion euros ($101 billion) in research funds. The UK government says it has a relief funding plan for researchers – called Plan B – but details are lacking, and the UK government is in turmoil after dozens of ministers resigned, forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign (Johnson said he will remain in the post until a successor is named).

In recent weeks, the European Commission (EC) has canceled grants won by UK researchers and the UK has set a deadline for negotiations at the end of the summer. The failure to reach agreement on Horizon Europe membership is the result of political differences between the UK and the EU over Northern Ireland.

With the writing now on the wall, UK-based scientists are seeking answers on what will replace the prestigious programs they may lose access to.

Nature examine what is known about Plan B.

Why is the UK in this position?

Since the country voted to leave the EU in 2016, its scientists have worried about the potential loss of EU research funds, a crucial source of revenue. Horizon Europe, which will run until 2027, includes the prestigious European Research Council (ERC), which awards unrivaled grants for basic research.

In 2020, a Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU provided for the UK to become an “associate” member of Horizon Europe, which would give UK-based researchers most of the same funding rights than EU scientists. nations. But, despite 18 months of talks on the association, no agreement has been signed.

Why is this coming to a head now?

Negotiations have stalled over a disagreement over how to set up a border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK . During the negotiations, however, British scientists were encouraged to continue to apply for EU funding in the hope that a deal would be struck and the funds would be disbursed.

Today the EU canceled grants to some UK scientists who had secured Horizon Europe funding. Nearly 150 UK-based researchers won ERC grants in the council’s first funding call, but the EU has now said UK researchers can only benefit from the grants if they transfer to an institution in an EU member country. So far, 18 researchers have chosen to do so; 8 others are waiting for the transfers to be approved. The ERC canceled the grants of 115 successful applicants and 6 other awardees requested more time to make a decision due to extenuating circumstances.

The ERC said Nature that he expects the number of UK-based applicants to lose funds to increase, as he offers funds from canceled grants to applicants on a reserve list – some of whom are in the UK. They will only be able to benefit from the subsidies if they move.

The UK has now pressured the EC to strike a deal. Last month, then UK science minister George Freeman, who resigned last week as he tried to force Johnson to quit, said he would give the commission until September to conclude a OK. Without it, the UK would be adopting an alternative research funding mechanism, known as Plan B.

What is Plan B?

Plan B is the UK government’s alternative to association with Horizon Europe (which has always been the first choice, or Plan A). Ministers have been seriously considering an alternative to the association since 2019. A report that year called for the creation of a flagship scholarship program to rival that of the ERC, as well as a series of international scholarships to attract foreign talent and stimulate basic research. funding.

Last month, Freeman testified before a parliamentary science committee about the plan’s progress. He described a four-pillar program that included “very strong talent” who would offer scholarships and international fellowships. A second pillar, combining industry and innovation, would propose a “bold offer” to break the cycle of short-term financing; he described it as “a DARPA-style, Wellcome Trust-style, Max Planck-style funding mechanism.”

A third global pillar would seek to “deepen our multilateral and bilateral work around the world to address global challenges”. A final pillar would cover major infrastructure investments.

Plan A is always the best outcome for UK scientists, but it’s true that the government is developing alternative plans, says Stephanie Smith, head of research policy at the Russell Group of UK research universities. “We are now at a stage where it is time for details to be released so that the UK research community can make the most of plan B if needed,” she adds. “We would need an exciting and compelling offer on talent, innovation and global partnerships to ensure we can deliver on our ambitions to maintain and strengthen the UK’s position as a science superpower.”

Who would be in charge of Plan B?

It’s not clear yet. The central research funder UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) could be an option. It already disburses around £8 billion (US$9.5 billion) in research funding a year (UKRI has refused Naturerequest to comment on Plan B). The ministry responsible for science – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – said details of its “immediate plans” will be released shortly.

Reports have suggested that the UK government has approached the country’s four national academies to arrange scholarship schemes, but no decision has been made. The academies – the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy – refused Naturerequesting feedback on specific plans.

A spokesman for the Royal Society said the society had helped with the government’s contingency planning on research funding, but its position remained that association with Horizon Europe was the best option for British science .

Where does the money come from?

In 2021, the UK Treasury has set aside £6.9 billion to foot the bill for association with Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes, or to fund any national alternative, until 2024-2025. Speaking to the science committee in June, Freeman said negotiations with the Treasury on how to allocate funding for such a program were ongoing.

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