Dr Nicholas Walton, a Cambridge University astrophysicist, was awarded funding as part of the EU’s £80billion flagship and innovation programme. He is one of a handful of British scientists promised funding through Horizon Europe. This is the programme the UK was meant to take part in – as negotiated in the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement – so British scientists could collaborate with European partners and receive prestigious EU grants.
But as the UK locked horns with the EU in a furious Brexit feud, the bloc lashed out and told Britain it cannot take part in Horizon unless the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute is resolved.
Now, Dr Walton and many others who won Horizon grants face losing that funding as the furious Brexit back-and-forth intensifies.
And the bloc ramped up its bullying tactics after telling many of these researchers that unless they move to a country associated with Horizon, their funds will be cut.
The EU’s threat to Dr Walton came just three weeks after he was awarded funding to study the Milky Way.
He said that the grant body that promised him the funds told him he had to “remove UK partners from the proposal and hand over the leadership of that project to a college based in an EU country”.
Dr Walton added: “There’s a lot of uncertainty and it’s not clear how it’s going to play out.
“It is really a question of how bad it is going to be.
“At worst we could lose access completely and leadership in science feeds through to creating jobs in industry and I think there is going to be an impact there.”
Despite the EU banning Britain from the project, the bloc EU still appeared to be offering 150 applicants grants under Horizon’s 2021 work programme, which needs to be signed by December 2022.
But the European Research Council (ERC), the main funding agency for Horizon, warned it will replace these UK-based researchers if they do not move to an EU or Horizon-associated country.
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An ERC spokesperson said it will have to “reach a bit deeper” into the backup lists, adding that “we are not going to fund bad proposals because of this”.
In an exclusive interview with Express.co.uk, Science Minister George Freeman warned the EU that its bullying tactics will result in a “lose-lose”.
He is furious with the bloc for violating the terms of the TCA, and is baffled as to why the bloc is holding science hostage as it has nothing to do with the Brexit feud.
Mr Freeman told Express.co.uk: “Crucially, inside the Northern Ireland Protocol, there is a set of legal remedies. It is a bespoke standalone agreement.
“On Horizon, the EU’s clear intention is that pressure on Horizon…will lead us to change our negotiating stance on Horizon. Let me be very clear, it absolutely will not because they are not linked.
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“And there is absolutely no case or legal basis for the EU to use science funding and use our membership of Horizon…as a leverage tool in the Northern Ireland Protocol talks, which is what they have been doing.”
He continued: “They are in danger of the worst of all worlds, which is the UK doing what it needs to do for the integrity of the United Kingdom.
“And the EU kicking us out of European research programmes, and I will then launch Global Plan B. They [the EU] are looking down the barrel of the lose-lose.”
The Science Minister has now signalled the UK will be ready to go it alone with his £15billion masterplan.
The £15billion that the UK was meant to use on Horizon (if the UK can’t rejoin) will instead be used on his global plan, which will involve striking partnerships with science powerhouses from across the world.
It comes as the second reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow the UK to unilaterally override sections of the Protocol, passed in Parliament this week.
The EU’s Vice-Commissioner Maros Sefcovic has called the bill “illegal”, sparking concerns that the UK will be permanently banned from Horizon.