The Wellcome view: Horizon Europe and the UK-EU science deal

There are seven planets orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1, 39 light-years from Earth. Those planets, on our doorstep in galactic terms, are rocky and Earth-like. One, which appears to have vast oceans of water, is one of the most exciting candidates in the search for life outside our solar system.

We know this through research led jointly by astronomers from Cambridge and Belgium’s University of Liège. This European collaboration, using a telescope called TRAPPIST, was funded by the EU’s science-funding body. It’s just one example, among thousands, of British scientists collaborating with European colleagues to create world-leading – and, in this case, world-discovering – science.

Over the coming years, Britain will withdraw from the EU. Scientists are worried that it will reduce their ability to work together. Science is a collaborative, international process, and cooperation and movement across borders is vital.

At Wellcome, we share these concerns; Brexit, badly handled, could damage British – and European – science. But we also believe that, post-Brexit, it will be possible to improve scientific collaboration with our European neighbours. It will mean compromise on both sides, but the gains will be great.

We put forward our vision for how to do this in our recent report Building a Strong Future for European Research: Brexit and Beyond. We were pleased to see the UK Government echo much of this vision in its recent offer for a future EU-UK research partnership.  

The UK offer laid out the Prime Minister’s ambition to become a full associate member of the next European funding programme: Horizon Europe. Being an associate country, like Switzerland or Norway, would allow the UK to retain some of its influence over the shape of the programme in return for a fair contribution to its cost and, where relevant, respect for the European Court of Justice’s remit.

The UK’s announcements are a positive start, but still leave some details missing, particularly on the most important piece to solve: people. Society benefits when scientists can move easily between research institutions. We strongly believe that the continued free movement of scientists is the ideal outcome.

The next best option to find a simple way to support travel, relocation and routes to residency for scientists, technicians and their families. The number of researchers who come to Britain is insignificant in terms of total immigration, and polling shows that British people are in favour of skilled migration.

We also need to maintain the same research standards as the EU. Our shared regulations give British scientists access to a huge pool of subjects and material. Collaboration with the US is far harder, because Britain has different standards of data protection and animal welfare. For instance, research on macaque monkeys in the EU requires that each monkey has at least 2m2 of cage space. In the US, that can be as low as 0.2m2. Aligning our regulations with the EU is easier, because we largely share the same values.

The UK’s stated ambitions are a positive step towards clarity. We hope to see an equally positive response when the European Commission publishes its plans for Horizon Europe tomorrow.

In return, the EU should be flexible on what associate membership means. It could, for instance, give Britain and other associate countries a stronger voice in how European research funding is organised. An EU commissioner, Carlos Moedas, has already acknowledged that British membership should be “different”, since it will be a big, important contributor.

While many political and technical hurdles remain, the EU and the UK need each other to reinforce Europe’s position as the world’s best research and innovation environment. Neither will be as strong without the other.

But time is running out. The successor to the TRAPPIST telescope – SPECULOOS – is already under construction, with British scientists playing a key role. It will do important science. Those researchers will find their work and lives easier, if the UK and EU can find a way to agree.

Beth Thompson is Wellcome's Head of UK/EU Policy

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