Tuesday, 23 Apr 2024

Government accused of 'gaslighting' over Brexit

The government has been accused of ‘gaslighting’ after hailing the UK’s return to the £85 billion Horizon science research programme.

The government said a ‘bespoke’ new agreement has been signed off with the EU, with UK researchers able to apply for grants and take part in Horizon projects having been frozen out after post-Brexit negotiations turned sour over Northern Ireland arrangements.

‘We have worked with our EU partners to make sure that this is right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities, and also the right deal for British taxpayers,’ said UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.

The move was immediately welcomed by scientists, after years of warnings that UK researchers have been missing out on collaboration with colleagues in the EU.

However, many accused the prime minister and MPs of ‘gaslighting’ over the announcement as officials celebrated the news.

Writing on Twitter, Rishi Sunak said: ‘I have always championed our world-leading scientists and innovators.

‘We’re joining Horizon on improved financial terms, increasing the benefits to UK scientists with better value for money for the British taxpayer.’

But Bob Cywinski, professor emeritus at the University of Huddersfield replied: ‘No, blossom, we’re rejoining not joining #Horizon, and on far worse terms and far less influence than previously we had. Why the gaslighting?’

Another user, physics PhD @DrEliseUK, said: ‘More Tory gaslighting. We are re-joining Horizon Europe just because we left it with #BrexitDisaster. But it won’t be as good for science as before, because #Brexit limits freedom of movement and hampers scientific collaboration. Science need the UK to #RejoinEU.’

Their sentiments were echoed across social media throughout the morning following the announcement and a stint by science secretary Michelle Donelan on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Horizon is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies.

EU member states contribute funds, which are then allocated to individuals or organisations on merit to explore subjects such as climate change, medical advances and artificial intelligence.

It had been hoped that a British return to Horizon would follow in the wake of the Windsor Framework deal, agreed in February and designed to address concerns over post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The breakthrough comes after months of talks between London and Brussels.

The government said the UK will associate with the Horizon programme, as well as the EU’s space programme, Copernicus.

But it will not take part in the bloc’s nuclear technology scheme, Euratom.

Horizon: the lowdown

What is Horizon?
The scheme is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies. The latest iteration of the programme was initially launched in 2021 with a budget of €95.5 billion (£81.8 billion). The scheme, which runs until 2027, is open to all types of organisations across Europe and the world. Given the scale of the funding, it is a hugely important source of support for some of the world’s most important research projects.

What is the link with Brexit?
Before the UK left the EU, the country was a member of Horizon. Ongoing membership or some form of future relationship was a key ask from scientists and universities during the protracted negotiations that followed the 2016 referendum.

Membership of the programme was eventually negotiated in the Brexit withdrawal agreement but the UK was frozen out of the scheme amid disputes between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Why is there a deal now?
Tensions between the UK and the EU remained high during the premiership of Boris Johnson, amid anger in Brussels as the government sought to backtrack on post-Brexit regulations for Northern Ireland and repeated threats to tear up the carefully negotiated deal for the region.

However, many Conservatives acknowledged the benefits of the Horizon scheme and it was hoped that a solution to the post-Brexit impasse in Northern Ireland could help forge a path for a UK return.

Rishi Sunak secured a long-awaited deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol in February in a major boost to relations with the EU. Many expected that the Windsor Framework could mean a relatively swift UK return to Horizon. Now, seven months later, a deal has finally been agreed.

How much does it cost?
Britain will contribute around £2.2 billion (€2.6 billion) per year to participate in both Horizon and the Copernicus space programme from January 1, when its association membership with the projects begins.

‘Innovation has long been the foundation for prosperity in the UK, from the breakthroughs improving healthcare to the technological advances growing our economy,’ said Mr Sunak.

‘With a wealth of expertise and experience to bring to the global stage, we have delivered a deal that enables UK scientists to confidently take part in the world’s largest research collaboration programme – Horizon Europe.’

The prime minister spoke to European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen in a call on Wednesday.

Ms Donelan said the Horizon programme is ‘unrivalled in its scope’, adding that it is a ‘fantastic day’ for British science and technology.

Under the terms of the deal, the UK will not need to pay into the scheme for the two years it was absent.

British costs under the programme will begin again in January 2024.

Newly-appointed shadow science secretary Peter Kyle told broadcasters that ministers now need to ‘get on with it’.

‘What we’re missing out on is two years’ worth of innovation,’ said the Labour MP.

‘Two years of global companies looking around the world for where to base their research centres and choosing other countries than Britain, because we are not part of Horizon… This is two years of wasted opportunity for us as a country.’

The government also pointed to the inclusion of a so-called ‘clawback’ mechanism in the deal, which will mean that the UK will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.

News of the deal was swiftly welcomed by scientists and researchers.

Universities UK president Professor Dame Sally Mapstone said: ‘Allowing our scientists to work together, irrespective of borders, is in all of our interests.

‘Our universities will now do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation and is able to secure genuine value, delivering the wealth of research opportunities available.’

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, called it ‘fantastic news’.

‘Science has so much to offer in terms of tackling global challenges and improving lives. Today the government and the EU have given that a big boost.’

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said it would be ‘overwhelmingly in the best interests of cancer patients and scientists’.

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