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This article was published on March 3, 2023

Sunak branded ‘unspeakably idiotic’ for impeding plans to rejoin Horizon

Britain's research sector is furious

Sunak branded ‘unspeakably idiotic’ for impeding plans to rejoin Horizon

Rishi Sunak has enraged British scientists after dimming hopes of rejoining the EU’s Horizon programme.

Prospects of reentering the €96 billion research scheme had grown after a new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland was struck on Monday. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen described the agreement as “good news” for scientists and researchers. She said work to associate the UK with Horizon could start “immediately” after implementing the terms.

Scientists had overwhelmingly welcomed the breakthrough. Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, the UK’s foremost collective of scientific voices, called for access to Horizon to be swiftly secured.

“These schemes support outstanding international collaboration, and the sooner we join them, the better for everyone,” Smith said in a statement. “The government has stated that the UK is more committed than ever to strong research collaboration with our European partners.”

This optimism quickly faded. According to a new report in Financial Times, Prime Minister Sunak is “sceptical” about the benefits and cost of Horizon. Officials said Sunak will review other options, including a new global research collaboration.

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The news sparked fury among scientists.

“This is unspeakably idiotic.

As the world’s biggest research programme, Horizon has been praised for enhancing collaboration, research standards, and supply chains for businesses — all of which are now at risk for the UK. Scientists fear that a continued absence from the scheme will lead British R&D to fall behind globally. 

Dr Mike Galsworthy, a researcher and campaigner described Sunak’s plan as “unspeakably idiotic.”

“To be a science superpower or anything close to it, we need to rejoin Horizon enthusiastically… and *then* invest in conferences, meetings, and new mechanisms to rapidly re-establish the UK as a European team leader,” Galsworth said in a tweet. “So WHAT is Rishi Sunak playing at?”

Opposition politicians have also slammed the intervention. Chi Onwurah, a shadow science minister and former engineer, noted that the ruling Conservative party previously promised to associate with Horizon.

“No Plan B can match Horizon Europe for funding, influence or range,” she said. “Breaking this promise would be a massive Sunak failure.”

Debate is raging about Sunak’s motivations. Some observers suspect he wants to do genome research that the EU would find unethical, while others argue that his stalling is merely a negotiating ploy.

Regardless of his tactics, researchers want a quick return to Horizon — before the UK’s international standing is further damaged

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