Britain will drop out of the ‘Champion’s League’ of science if the government fails to negotiate a deal with access to European research programmes, 72 leading scientists have warned.
Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize-winning Director of the Francis Crick Institute, has urged the government to negotiate access to Europe’s new €100 billion science programme, following the response of research group leaders at the Crick.
The call comes as the UK Government considers establishing 'credible and ambitious' alternative schemes to support international collaboration. In a survey of the Crick’s research lab heads, there was virtually unanimous support for the UK to continue participating in Europe’s science programmes after Brexit, with none saying the UK should develop its own scheme.
74 of 103 research group leaders responded, with 68 (92%) saying they would strongly prefer the UK to join the EU programme, 4 (5%) saying they would prefer it, and only 2 (3%) expressing no preference.
The current EU science programme, Horizon 2020, provides around £1.5 billion for UK research each year. 16 non-member states have negotiated full access as 'associated countries', although the process for the successor programme, Horizon Europe, is still being developed.
Paul Nurse, said: "Science matters to every one of us, in the UK and across the world. Tomorrow's treatments and technologies are grounded in today's science, and it’s the deep collaborations between UK researchers and colleagues around the world that help make the UK a leading scientific nation. For UK science to remain strong after Brexit, we need to continue working closely with our European partners. If we try to go it alone, we risk falling behind.
"European-wide programmes raise standards and are a significant mark of quality. Winning European funding is like being in the Champion's League, while a domestic alternative is more like the FA Cup or Community Shield. Our scientists have sent a clear message that they want to keep competing in the big European leagues."
Many of the Crick’s scientific leaders expressed doubts that the UK would be able to provide a credible alternative in a reasonable time frame, citing Horizon 2020's high quality peer review system, established wide collaborative networks and reputation for excellence.
Dr Sharon Tooze, whose lab studies how our bodies break down damaged cell parts, said: "European grants are unparalleled in their support of discovery science, taking a long-term view to help lay the foundations for the medicines of the future. Any one country would struggle to come up with something that's as coveted and well-respected by researchers worldwide. The fierce competition for ERC grants undoubtedly boosts research output across Europe."
Dr Andreas Wack, who runs a lab studying flu viruses, said: "It will be impossible to replicate the existing EU scheme in scope of research areas, quality of the review board and volume of funding. The only sensible solution is to stay within Horizon Europe."
The Crick's EU-funded researchers
Caetano Reis e Sousa, EU group leader
Portuguese scientist Caetano Reis e Sousa leads a lab looking at how the immune system works, to develop better vaccines and cancer therapies. He is a distinguished scientist who won the prestigious Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2017 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2019. He was awarded a €2.5m ERC Advanced Grant in 2010 and another in 2018, and has hosted 10 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellows in his lab who have brought in an additional €2m of EU funds for research.
“European research continues to thrive thanks to the generous support of ERC grants, which promote fruitful collaborations across the continent. Working with international partners over the last decade, we’ve built up a wealth of knowledge about the mechanisms by which the immune system detects pathogen invasion, and how this process could be used to target cancer. This simply would not have been possible without the financial backing of the ERC. If the UK wants to continue to be a world-class scientific player after Brexit, we need to maintain access to Horizon funding. It is hard to imagine that any credible and ambitious alternative could be provided that would match its scale and success.”
Berta Terre Torras, EU postdoc
Berta Terre Torras is a developmental neuroscientist working to understand how the human brain develops. Humans have very large brains relative to our body size, so Berta is working to discover whether specific genes make our brains grow so big.
Berta was recently awarded EU funding through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action fellowship. These prestigious awards cover salary, research and training costs, offering financial independence for the researcher and additional funding for the institute.
“The fellowship is fantastic, both for my science and my career,” says Berta. “The process gave me the opportunity to plan out my research project, and the fellowship provides everything I need to make it happen. As well as the research funding, it offers me the freedom to independently attend conferences and access training opportunities, to meet new people and develop my skills.”
“With the scheme's successful history, everyone knows about it and there is a strong community of past and present fellows. The value of the fellowship goes far beyond the money, it has a strong international reputation which gives a huge boost to my credibility and future career opportunities. It would take years, even decades, for any new programme to build anything like the same profile. If Marie Curie fellowships were not available in the UK, it would be a much less attractive place to do research – and the weather is bad enough!”