Will politics keep us from accessing EU science funding?


Amid the current political turmoil, the Government must remain focussed on a solution to post-Brexit science funding and opportunities for international collaboration. Here, our policy department gives us an update on the current state of play, what you can do to help and what we know about the Government’s ‘Plan B’…

Last year, we wrote about the UK-EU “Brexit Deal” and what it meant for cancer treatment, clinical trials and future collaboration.

We’ve been keeping an eye on how the agreement is working in practice and we’ll soon be asking our researchers and people affected by cancer to tell us their hopes and opportunities for future European collaboration in more detail.

In the meantime, we’ve recently released a new strategy, which makes the importance of working across borders to accelerate progress clear. We understand the immense value of global collaboration for the biggest possible impact, such as our latest Cancer Grand Challenges in partnership with the US National Cancer Institute. So, we’ve worked with other UK life sciences groups to call for the UK to be part of Horizon Europe – the world’s largest multinational research and innovation funding programme.

“We believe that associating to Horizon Europe is overwhelmingly in the best interests of UK cancer researchers and people with cancer.”

Horizon Europe is worth around £80 billion. The medical research community was clear throughout the Brexit negotiations that UK researchers must continue to participate fully in this major opportunity for international research collaborations (especially given how much the UK secured from the previous seven-year programme, Horizon 2020). This was agreed by the EU and UK as part of the “Brexit Deal”.

At the time, an agreement ‘in principle’ detailed how the UK could access the programme as an ‘associate member.’ However, the signing of a formal agreement and full association has not taken place because of wider political tensions.

We believe that associating to Horizon Europe is overwhelmingly in the best interests of UK cancer researchers and people with cancer. The EU’s recent flagship Cancer Mission, including the collaborations within Horizon Europe, is a moment of great opportunity for global progress on cancer, and we want you to access the best opportunities. Our Executive Director of Policy, Information and Communications, Ian Walker, has written further about CRUK’s view here.

If you haven’t already, please do ask your EU-based collaborators to take action via the Stick to Science campaign aimed at persuading the EU to leave the politics at the door and go ahead with UK association.

Plan B

We’ve heard already from our research community that failing to secure the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe would be a major setback, at a time when the funding landscape is much more challenging across the board due to COVID-19.

We recognise the impact of delayed decisions on our scientists. It’s been incredibly frustrating for you to spend so much time applying through complex processes only to find that, even on winning a prestigious award, more barriers put in your way due to the wider political situation.

Recently the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) set out how the UK will transition to a new R&D programme – known as the “Plan B” alternative – in the event the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe.

“It’s vital that you contact UKRI if you expect to sign any agreement by the end of December this year that isn’t covered by the UK Government’s funding guarantee so far.”

CRUK’s position is that association to Horizon Europe is the best option for UK science and this also continues to be the UK Government position – however association is looking increasingly unlikely due to wider political disagreements with the Northern Ireland protocol.

We await more information and key voices are urging the interim Government not to leave scientists in the lurch if it proves impossible for UK-based researchers to lead collaborations within Horizon Europe. George Freeman MP, until recently the Minister for Science, Research & Innovation, told the Science & Technology Committee of the House of Commons that in that event they will commit to a “transition so that there is no cliff edge… September will be when the transition programme begins, and then there is a transition through over the next year or 18 months”. We look forward to hearing more from a new science minister in due course.

We still expect scientists in the UK will be able to join Horizon Europe consortia without leadership roles, funded by the UK Government’s scheme. UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) told us they understand the issues people have already experienced with handing over coordination and technical reporting to another organisation during this period of uncertainty, but they’re keen to support as best they can. And it’s vital that you contact UKRI if you expect to sign any agreement by the end of December this year that isn’t covered by the UK Government’s funding guarantee so far.

Whatever happens next, we know that we can only beat cancer in partnership. We’ll continue to do all we can to support opportunities for collaboration. Our amazing scientists remain a crucial part of a global research community. We’re so grateful for the huge strides you have made, and continue to make, to prevent, detect and treat more cancers.

Laura Williams is Europe & Global Affairs Manager in the Cancer Research UK Policy Department

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