Minister opens Horizon talks as tech industry leans on government to ensure membership of EU scheme

Technology secretary of state visits Brussels to discuss possible associate membership

The government is due to hold talks with the European Union about the UK having associate membership of Horizon, the bloc’s funding and research programme for science and technology.

Michelle Donelan, the secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, has this week travelled to Brussels for a meeting with her European Commission counterpart Mariya Gabriel. The meeting is understood to be introductory, with any agreement that would give the UK access to the Horizon scheme unlikely to be reached imminently.

Speaking ahead of her trip this afternoon, Donelan stressed that the UK would only sign up to the “right terms”. Meanwhile, the government is drawing up an alternative post-Brexit plan for the science and technology sectors if negotiations with Brussels over Horizon fail to produce a deal, which it is expected to publish in the coming days.

“I am determined to ensure our world-class scientists have the very best platform on which to continue their work, with research that transforms the way we live and work, not just here in the UK, but around the world,” said Donelan. “I look forward to this introductory meeting with the EU and discussing possible future association with Horizon Europe. But we can only do so on the right terms, and I’m in Brussels… to ensure there is understanding of that on both sides, while taking forward these discussions in a constructive and respectful way.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to turn the UK into a science “superpower”, but is believed to be concerned about paying too much money for industry-backed participation in the EU’s scheme.

The UK was supposed to begin operating as an associate member of the programme two years ago. This was derailed by the long-running spat over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, however, which has now been resolved with the signing of the Windsor framework in late February.

Speaking at a press conference in Windsor confirming the agreement, European Commission vice president Ursula von der Leyen said the diplomatic breakthrough, which came following a significant improvement in relations between London and Brussels, paved the way for negotiations about potential associate membership for the UK “immediately”.

The prime minister has been under growing pressure to take the UK back into Horizon.

On Monday, PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome obtained a recent letter to Sunak, signed by over 30 business leaders, which urged him to negotiate the UK’s associate membership “without delay”.

Industry groups including techUK, the Chemicals Industries Association and Logistics UK, plus businesses like Airbus and EDF, warned the PM that participation in Horizon would deliver things “the UK alone could not”, and stressed that the government would not be able to “recreate” its benefits.

The letter said the benefits of associate membership of Horizon would “go far beyond funding”, and result in advantages for the UK like bolstering research capabilities, enhancing data sharing and making it easier for universities to recruit “top talent” from abroad.

Conservative MP Greg Clark, Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said the letter demonstrated how “the benefits of association go beyond the funding the government can provide, and what we would be losing out on if the delay continues”.

Adam Payne

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