Scientists have today (8 February) launched a campaign imploring European leaders to put politics to one side and end the long-running dispute surrounding the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe.
Stick to Science, calling for an “open and collaborative research and innovation landscape in Europe that is free from political barriers”, launches as the UK’s and Switzerland’s participation in the £79.4 bn scheme hangs in the balance.
‘We cannot accept any longer that scientific cooperation be held hostage to bilateral politics,” said Professor Ludovic Thilly, chair of the executive board, Coimbra Group, an association representing 41 universities across Europe.
“A decade of cooperation with our British and Swiss partners is at risk of being jeopardised, and this at a period of time when global challenges have never required so much international research cooperation.”
UK participation in the seven-year programme is reportedly collateral damage in a dispute between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol and fishing rights in UK waters.
Switzerland is currently a non-associated third country in Horizon Europe and related programmes and initiatives. While preparatory actions for its association were completed on the Swiss side in December 2020, technical talks towards membership are yet to begin.
“The current situation means that the work of some of the best minds in Europe’s science and excellent research infrastructures are missing out on the additional scientific knowledge and resources of UK and Swiss institutions,” said campaigners.
“These circumstances prevent Europe’s top scientists from working together to tackle global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and food security.”
It is time to stop playing politics and put the interests of people first – Adrian Smith, the Royal Society
It has been estimated that the continued participation of the UK and Switzerland would add a further £15 bn to the Horizon Europe budget, equating to an 18% increase on its current total.
The Stick to Science campaign launched on 8 February with the backing of institutional leaders. The new campaign is the latest indicator of a growing frustration over the political impasse.
Robert-Jan Smits, the former European Commission research director general and now president of the board of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, said his institution participated in about 600 research projects with teams in Switzerland and the UK under the last Horizon programme. Describing Horizon as like “the glue” for these cross-border projects, Prof Smits said: “If that glue is not there, you’re going to look for all kinds of ad-hoc arrangements, and that’s not good. It will hamper cooperation big time.”
Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor of Swansea University, told reporters at a press conference to launch the Stick to Science Campaign: “We have many examples where the UK researchers, and indeed their partners and collaborators and the rest of Europe. are very unclear about whether the UK can lead on any proposals. That’s leading to an awful lot of nervousness among not only UK researchers but [also] their collaborators about whether these programmes are likely to fall away. This is a significant problem in many areas of science and research and innovation.”
In November 2021, the heads of 25 organisations representing more than 1,000 universities wrote to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to warn that a lack of agreement over the UK’s association with Horizon Europe risked “a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness”.
Later that month, the UK government pledged that successful Horizon Europe applicants would be guaranteed funding, no matter the outcome of talks with the EU over the UK’s continued participation.
Among the first 200 signees backing the Stick to Science campaign are Nobel Prize winners, entrepreneurs and innovators, research funding bodies, and heads of HE institutions and research institutes from across Europe.
“Collaboration is at the heart of science,” said Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society.
“Relationships that have built up between UK and other European researchers over the decades have made a real difference to people’s lives across the continent and beyond. It is time to stop playing politics and put the interests of people first.”