Britain’s status as a “science superpower” will be in jeopardy if the UK does not join the European Union’s Horizon scheme, MPs have heard.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said being part of the EU’s 100 billion euro (£88.6 billion) science research programme is “crucial” for the success of the UK’s science sector.
Sir Paul told the Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday: “I think the Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, has talked to a lot of scientists and I think she has got the message – and it is almost a universal message – that association with Horizon is crucial for the success of UK science and, therefore, the future of our country.”
He warned: “If we don’t associate, I see us drifting off into the cold north-east Atlantic rather by ourselves.”
Horizon Europe is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies.
EU member nations contribute funds to this programme, which are then allocated to individuals or organisations based on merit.
The Government negotiated associate membership of the programme in the Brexit withdrawal agreement but the EU went back on the deal after disputes emerged over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Since then, British involvement in the programme has been in limbo – but the UK hopes that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent deal on the protocol brings participation a step closer.
As a back-up, the Government this week published its long-awaited “Plan B” if negotiations to join the Horizon programme fail.
The £14.6 billion initiative, called Pioneer, would take the money earmarked for the UK’s participation in the Horizon scheme and invest it in UK science, research, technology and innovation.
Sir Paul – who was one of 15 UK Nobel Prize winners who wrote to the Prime Minister last year to stress the importance of maintaining strong scientific ties with Europe – said Plan B cannot substitute the European programme that has powered many innovating research projects in which the UK was a leading player.
He said: “I think we are dithering too much, frankly, and I think we’re getting mixed messages with Plan B.”
He added: “The UK is respected and we had an influence on all the activities that were happening there (when the UK was part of the Horizon scheme) – and we will lose all of that.
“And Plan B does not substitute for it.
“Let’s be perfectly clear and frank about it – we will get very lonely and we will not actually have the influence in the world that is appropriate for a science superpower, which I think all political parties and scientists absolutely want.”