The UK government is prepared to forgo £88.6 billion of EU funding for scientific research if a solution to a post-Brexit row cannot be found, a government minister has said.
Michelle Donelan, Secretary of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said Britain would instead form an alliance with the US, Japan and Switzerland.
Her office was one of four new government departments created by Rishi Sunak is last week’s reshuffle.
During the Conservative leadership contest last summer, Mr Sunak pledged to make the UK a “science superpower”.
Ms Donelan said Britain is “ready to go it alone” if the bloc does not agree to the government’s post-Brexit terms of membership of EU programme Horizon.
The MP acknowledged that the science sector was eager to know about the UK’s association with the scheme, but stressed that if the partnership could not come to fruition the UK would have no qualms in snubbing it.
George Freeman, a UK science minister, previously accused the European Commission of refusing to engage in talks over membership of Horizon, saying Brussels was blocking Britain’s requests because of the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Eight months on and with progress still stalled, Ms Donelan said she would “not sit idly by while our researchers are sidelined”.
Her comments, which could be interpreted as a warning to the EU, came amid speculation the UK and Brussels were on the brink of striking an agreement to resolve the dispute over Northern Ireland. Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary, last week pushed back the Stormont election deadline until January 2024, as the row continues.
Writing in The Telegraph, Ms Donelan said Horizon is far from being the only option available to the UK when it comes to striking scientific research partnerships.
“If we cannot associate, we are more than ready to go it alone with our own global-facing alternative, working with science powerhouses such as the US, Switzerland and Japan to deliver international science collaborations,” she said.
“The time for waiting is quickly coming to an end and I will not shy away from striking out alone.”
Many UK scientists welcomed the new department after calling for one for a number of years, saying the announcement put science at the heart of government.
However, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, responded to the news by saying Ms Donelan’s “first job” as Science Secretary “must be to secure association to Horizon Europe and other EU science programmes”.
“These schemes support outstanding international collaboration and without being part of them we are undermining the Prime Minister’s stated ambition for the UK to be at the forefront of science and technology globally,” he said.
With no end in sight to the post-Brexit quarrels between London and Brussels, hope is fading that an agreement could be sealed before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
Bertie Ahern, a former Irish taoiseach (prime minister) who signed the peace deal with Tony Blair in 1998, told The National that compromise on both sides is needed to break the deadlock.