UK science will need ‘realistic’ focus if blocked from EU schemes, says minister

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LONDON — British science after Brexit will need to set “realistic” ambitions if it is excluded from the EU’s own schemes, and focus on key areas where it can sustain a leading role, according to the U.K. science minister.

The U.K. has applied to join EU programs such as the Horizon Europe research and development framework and the Copernicus Earth satellite observation scheme.

But the European Commission has refused to sign off on Britain’s association until a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland is resolved.

In a speech delivered at the center-right think tank Onward in London on Wednesday, George Freeman hailed the importance of new U.K. funding initiatives meant to encourage bilateral projects with colleagues in non-EU science powerhouses like Japan, Switzerland and Israel.

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But he acknowledged Britain cannot rely only on bilateral collaborations, nor it can match the scale of the U.S., China or EU science budgets.

If Britain was permanently excluded from the EU science schemes, it would, he argued, need to focus on specific research challenges where it can lead multinational consortia.

In a world increasingly dominated by China, the U.S., and the EU, the U.K. “will need to carve out a realistic role which draws on our historic strengths,” Freeman said.

British science may then focus on areas such as polar research; agritech and gene editing of crops; space; biosecurity; synthetic biology and research into the growing sector of functional foods, Freeman said.

There is a “huge opportunity” for the U.K. in these areas because Brexit allows the country to become “a global testbed” and regulate in an “agile” and “responsive” way, the science minister said — one of the most touted benefits of leaving the EU.

Touching on the row over the U.K.’s stalled association to Horizon, Freeman said he “cannot allow U.K. researchers to be benched.”

And he added: “If we cannot play in the European Cup of science, then we must simply have to go and play in the World Cup of science.”

As part of its “Plan B” if excluded from EU science, the U.K. would also channel more funding toward fellowships for foreign researchers, “moonshots” on cutting edge technology areas, and global collaborations.

“There’s a possibility if we move with bold vision… the European Union will see that we are committed to doing this and I think it’s more likely that they will pick up the phone and say, ‘look, come back in and let’s do the ERC [European Research Council] together’ and learn from some of the things that we are doing,” he added.

“I think we can have our cake and eat it: I think we can be a domestic powerhouse, an European player and more of a global player.”