UK eyes £6bn science fund if EU blocks it from rejoining Horizon Europe

Joining EU €95bn science fund still preferred option for Government but time is running out for next grant funding round

The UK is planning to spend £6bn over three years its own global science fund if it cannot rejoin the EU’s own programme.

Science minister George Freeman has told the Financial Times that rejoining Horizon Europe is still the Government’s preferred option, but the EU continues to block access. This is understood to be a political decision because of the ongoing standoff over Northern Ireland and Brexit.

By comparison, Horizon Europe has an EU-wide budget of €95bn over seven years.

Science funding is crucial as university research spins out into fledgling companies that need venture capital investment. The universities of Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and Imperial spearhead tech spinouts that go onto become the $1bn unicorns of the future. The Government has banked on net-zero technology as crucial to its levelling-up agenda.

However, one trade-off of being outside of Horizon Europe is that a UK science fund could work more closely with countries beyond the EU, including Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Switzerland remains shut out of Horizon Europe as well for similarly political reasons. Mr Freeman told the newspaper he was meeting the Swiss science minister today.

Although the autumn spending review cut the rise in public R&D funding to £20bn in 2024-25 from the £22bn promised in 2020, that is still an increase in real terms from the £14.9bn allocated this year.

Peter Highnam to run Aria

Meanwhile, Peter Highnam, current the deputy head of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), has been appointed CEO of the UK equivalent, Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria).

US technology agency Darpa was created in the 1950s and helped invent the internet.

Mr Freeman told the FT that computer scientist Peter Highnam is to science research “what Alex Ferguson is to football management”.

Creating a British technology research agency was a pet project of former Number 10 chief of staff Dominic Cummings and it was thought that with his sudden exit, the Aria project would be kicked inot the long grass.

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