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Updated on March 24, 2023 10:29 pm

UK business groups call on Sunak to rejoin Horizon research scheme

UK business groups and executives have urged Rishi Sunak to move “as swiftly as possible” to rejoin the EU’s €95.5bn Horizon Europe research programme, as fears mount that the country’s scientists will be barred from crucial international projects.

In a letter seen by the Financial Times, BusinessLDN and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership called on the prime minister to secure access to Horizon “to ensure the UK remains at the cutting-edge of research and development”.

Their letter marks the latest call from industry groups and executives for ministers to accelerate Britain’s re-entry into Horizon, after the deal between London and Brussels over post-Brexit trade for Northern Ireland opened the door to associate membership.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said last month that she was “happy to start immediately . . . work on an association agreement” as a result of the Windsor framework.

But the process could take months, with people close to Sunak saying that he has concerns over the cost and necessity of re-entering Horizon and is considering pushing ahead with plans for domestic science funding.

In their letter, BusinessLDN chief John Dickie and NPP head Henri Murison called on Sunak to “move as swiftly as possible to rejoin”, saying that the previous Horizon programme led to 31,000 global collaborations, with almost 2,000 businesses nationwide benefiting directly, including many smaller groups and start-ups.

Noting that Russell Group universities alone had won grants worth €1.8bn from the European Research Council — more than all of France — they said: “Membership of Horizon is therefore critical to Britain’s world-leading research and development work, which in turn is the foundation for economic growth.”

Dickie and Murison — whose groups together have 200 members from a range of different sectors across the UK capital and north of England — wrote that belonging to Horizon was “not just about individual projects” but “the wider network benefits” of “this world-leading consortium of scientists, researchers and businesses”. 

The UK government has guaranteed eligible research projects unable to sign grant agreements with the EU until June 30, but the business groups described that as “a short-term sticking plaster”.

Other business figures have also called for Britain to rejoin the Horizon research programme, echoing calls from many of the UK’s top scientists.

Benjamin Reid, programme director for innovation at the CBI, said that if Sunak was “really serious about delivering on his ambition to make the UK a science and innovation superpower, then he must prioritise the UK’s association to Horizon Europe”. 

Many smaller companies in the science and tech sectors are also concerned by cuts to other investment incentives, such as the research and development tax credit scheme.

“Not associating Horizon Europe will simply reduce the UK’s R&D attractiveness and incentivise businesses to invest in R&D elsewhere,” said Reid.

Meanwhile in a speech last week, Stephen Phipson, head of Make UK, the manufacturers’ trade association, said Horizon had “always been one of those areas of the EU budget where the UK gets more out than it puts in”.

“If the government is to achieve its stated aim of becoming a science superpower, then it’s vital that the UK retains its place in the programme. This should be one of the main pillars around which a modern industrial strategy could be built,” he added.

The government said: “We will continue to discuss how we can work constructively with the EU in a range of areas, including future collaboration on research and innovation.”


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