Whitehall stepped in last week with the additional funding to help pay for the UK’s association with Horizon Europe – the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation. It came amid mounting pressure from the science community, who warned of a hit to the country’s main funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), should they be made to cover the estimated £2billion-per-year fee. The UK retained participation in the major science project as part of its post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, but the cost of participation was previously part of the bloc’s membership fees.
Researchers welcomed the extra commitment after weeks of uncertainty, but it came after the EU Commission released draft plans to exclude researchers based in the UK, Israel and Switzerland from major quantum and space research projects.
Britain joined the likes of China in being locked out due to security concerns.
Until now, these projects were open to the association countries, which have negotiated access to EU research programmes.
The move was met with fury in the science community.
Klaus Ensslin, professor of solid-state physics at ETH Zurich, said: “Everyone’s shocked, we’ve never seen anything like this.
“This is not good for us, not good for the field, and not good for the EU.”
The proposal would see fewer resources in key scientific areas go to associate countries, and more resources dedicated to developing technology inside the bloc.
Nadav Katz, who runs the Quantum Coherence Lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, added: “There have been certain indications that something like this had been building up. But this was quite dramatic.
“This is not in Europe’s interest.”
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The plan was driven by Thierry Breton, the French internal market commissioner, and backed by the French government
But representatives from Germany, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands were among the 19 member states who opposed the proposal.
One concerned diplomat reportedly said: “You can’t just put the UK and Switzerland in the same box as China and Iran.
“If this is what Breton’s idea of strategic autonomy looks like, we’re in for one rough ride. The Commission is pulling the rug underneath fruitful collaborations, they need to stay on the carpet.”
But Commission officials are said to have rejected arguments and stressed the importance of pushing through the plans of working with trusted partners
The proposal includes restrictions on work on a range of sensitive areas such as quantum computers, described in the text as an “emerging technology of global strategic importance”.
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According to the draft plans, the goal of the changes is to “make independent European capacities in developing and producing quantum computing technologies of strategic importance for future computing capacities and applications in security and dual-use technologies”.
Discussions are expected to resume between the member states and the Commission on April 19.
Since then, a letter from Thomas Hofmann, president of the Technical University of Munich, has been written on behalf of institutions in Switzerland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Israel and the Netherlands.
It warned of the “negative impact” of going ahead with the plans.
Part of it reads: “Opening the scientific borders for the countries outside of the EU should go hand in hand with strengthening collaboration with our closest partners and not undermine it.
“Cooperation with the aligned countries is vital for the competitiveness of the EU’s economy.
“The latest proposal by the European Commission to exclude longstanding and trustful partner countries like Switzerland, Israel and the UK from parts of the research programme is not in the interest of Europe’s research community nor the wider society and could be damaging for the international cooperation.”