Nobel laureate urges Boris Johnson to commit to £80bn EU science scheme

Venki Ramakrishnan says Horizon programme is vital to ensuring UK retains influence

Venki Ramakrishnan is a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society
Venki Ramakrishnan is a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer
Venki Ramakrishnan is a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer
Brexit correspondent

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 13.13 EST

Fears are growing the UK is on the verge of losing its place at the heart of Europe’s prestigious medical and scientific research programmes because of a Brexit row.

One of the country’s leading scientists has written to Boris Johnson warning of heightened concern over the EU’s flagship £80bn Horizon Europe programme, which pools talent and ideas that have produced breakthroughs on everything from leukaemia treatments to hydrogen cells that fuel zero-emission buses.

Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel prize winner and president of the Royal Society, has urged the prime minister to commit to the next seven years of the programme as a paying-in associate member to help secure his vision for the UK to be a “global science superpower”.

The future of the UK’s participation is hanging in the balance with sources in the science community in despair that they will be collateral damage in an argument over a financial formula they say can easily be solved.

Ramakrishnan’s letter comes days after a similar last-ditch attempt to influence the outcome of Brexit talks was made by some of the country’s best-known science leaders, including Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute and Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Sage committee advising the government on Covid.

“We urge you to use the final stages of talks to find common ground,” they said in their letter to Johnson.

Talks have foundered over the EU’s one-way formula for the UK’s financial contribution. They have suggested the UK pay in 18% of the budget.

The UK has rejected this as a “one-way” formula, which would oblige London to invest top-up finance if it got more than the 18% of the overall funds but no rebate if it got less. A two-way financial correction formula was proposed by the Wellcome Trust but there is little optimism in the science community that a deal will be struck.

The Royal Society has urged Johnson to think about the benefits that go beyond direct science funding including the pooling of talent that leads to scientific breakthroughs such as this week’s Covid vaccine, which has emerged from a collaboration between Pfizer and the German company BioNTech.

“Without a commitment now, we risk eroding the sensitive ecosystem of people, infrastructure, and ideas that spans borders and enables the UK to punch well above its weight,” Ramakrishnan said.

He said remaining in the EU programme was vital to ensure the UK that “talented individuals” remained in the country and Britain retained its influence globally in science. He added: “Critically, this will help avert major disruption to our science capability in the coming months as we respond to Covid-19.”

The Royal Society points out that the UK has received more than £1.5bn from Horizon programmes with another £776m coming from Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grants with breakthroughs.

The UK and the EU are in the last stages of trying to thrash out a deal with a 19 November deadline for a final outcome looming.

Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, is in London until Friday but sources say “talks are not going well this week at all”. They say the UK is being consistent with its past by putting “its bazooka on the table” with the expectation that it can seal a deal at the last minute.

A government spokesperson said: “Negotiations are ongoing. We’ve been clear that where it’s in the UK’s interests, we are considering participating in EU programmes, including Horizon Europe, where they represent a real benefit to British people and industry, provided the UK can secure participation on acceptable terms.”