European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen should use her “unique role” to safeguard vital science collaboration in Europe and worldwide, campaigners pushing for UK and Swiss association to the EU’s research funding program Horizon Europe have urged.
In a letter to the president, Stick to Science signatories – representing over 5,600 researchers and research organisations across the continent – have appealed for the two countries’ association to be unlocked and negotiators to stop using the program as a bargaining chip.
Politicians from EU and the UK are currently at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland protocol, while other political negotiations between Switzerland and the bloc have stalled.
“UK and Swiss association to Horizon Europe is currently tied together with broader political issues which, although of grave importance, are not linked to science,” the letter noted.
“As we face the very real and pressing risk that Horizon Europe could continue without two of its most committed partners, we emphasise that research collaboration benefits us all.
“Of course, our collective futures will be poorer with less collaboration on science.”
There will be no political winners if association fails, the letter continues.
The Stick to Science initiative – launched in February – has persistently called on both the UK and the EU to overcome a political impasse resulting from the UK’s exit from the union.
“Advances in science and innovation are being held back”
The Wellcome Trust – one of the signees of the latest letter – noted that the EU is not willing to give final sign-off on the UK’s membership while the Northern Ireland protocol dispute is ongoing.
“This means international collaborations are being put on hold and advances in science and innovation are being held back,” it said.
“It is vital that the UK government and the EU commission look beyond Brexit negotiations and agree on an urgent resolution to allow scientists to continue working together,” Beth Thompson, associate director for policy at the Wellcome Trust noted.
“Blocking UK associate membership of Horizon Europe would harm both the UK and the EU.”
In a letter to crossbench peer Charles Kinnoull, EU Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth commissioner Mariya Gabriel suggested that the UK will not be part of the flagship R&I program as long as disputes over trade in Northern Ireland continue, POLITICO reported in May.
The commission continues to recognise the mutual benefit in cooperation in science, research and innovation, nuclear research and space, a commission spokesperson said.
“However, the political setting of this file should be recalled,” the spokesperson told The PIE. “There are serious difficulties in the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and parts of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
“The Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides neither for a specific obligation for the Union to associate the UK to Union Programs at this point in time nor for a precise deadline to do so.”
However, the commission “looks forward to a prompt resolution” that would establishment association status.
While UK entities can still apply to Horizon Europe calls for proposals and undergo evaluation procedures, grant agreements can only be signed once association is effective, the spokesperson added.
Non-associated third countries can still participate in Horizon Europe projects but without having access to funding from the union budget.
“In practice, this means that in most cases UK entities will be able to continue cooperation within Horizon Europe research consortia… They would need to obtain their funding from other sources until the UK is associated,” the spokesperson emphasised.
“The European research sector stands united”
The case in the Swiss context also allows its scientists and academic institutions to participate in Horizon Europe, but access to EU funding is affected by “structural bilateral issues that remain on the table”.
Earlier this year, the Russell Group warned that the UK’s association to the program was “closing, and closing fast”, with university leaders cautioning Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission, that the “situation is deteriorating everyday that the uncertainty drags on”.
The UK government has said it is preparing an alternative funding program that it will put in place if the sides are unable to agree future participation. The hold up is “entirely political”, UUKi director Vivienne Stern said in June.
The EC president has been pressed to intervene urgently on the “crucial issue”.
“The European research sector stands united in its agreement that researchers in the UK and Switzerland still have much to offer science in Europe,” the letter stated. “We must allow them to continue to contribute.”