The urgent need to rejoin Horizon
Rishi Sunak claims to want to promote British science and research. The prime minister rightly says the country has great strengths in areas that range from artificial intelligence to life sciences, though it also faces some obstacles. One of these is its post-Brexit absence from Horizon, the European Unions (and the worlds) biggest collaborative research programme. The Brexit trade agreement signed in late 2020 by Boris Johnson, Mr Sunaks predecessor but one, provided for Britain to remain associated with Horizon. But the plan for this fell through because of a fierce row over the Brexit terms for Northern Ireland. When Mr Sunak settled the Northern Irish question in the Windsor framework, in February, the EU repeated its promise of an early deal on Horizon. Although the terms for this were broadly agreed on by early July, nothing was settled. Mr Sunaks decision whether to associate with Horizon may come soon. British scientists are clamouring to get back as soon as possible, but for Mr Sunak there seem to be three arguments against. One is a value-for-money concern that, after missing out on two years of Horizons current seven-year cycle, the Treasury might end up paying in more than it gets out. The second is a desire for Britain to control its own research programme, rather than outsource a chunk to Brussels. And the third is a dislike among hardline Tory Brexiteers for any closer links to the EU. None of these stands up to scrutiny. On value for money, Britains strong research base has in the past made it a big net beneficiary of Horizon. A provision also exists for financial adjustment to compensate for the years it has missed. It is anyway wrongheaded to treat a programme like Horizon in zero-sum terms. Its biggest advantage lies in the cross-fertilisation of ideas that benefits all participants, no matter which countries are paying in. Its main output is research, not money. Taking back control has superficial appeal, and the government is trumpeting its planned Britain-only project, Pioneer, as a fallback if it does not join Horizon. Yet Britain has a poor record of government support for research. A domestic programme cannot match either the size or the collaboration offered by Horizon, which has the added advantage of a seven-year budget that cannot easily be raided by grasping finance ministries. As for dislike of the EU, even fervent Brexiteers should see Horizon in a more positive light. Hardliners often argued that Britain could keep many benefits of membership despite leaving the club. It would be difficult to find a better example of how this can be done than Horizon. The programmes strengths have persuaded many non-EU members, from Israel to Ukraine, to sign up as associates. New Zealand has just joined. Canada and Japan hope to follow. That makes Britains absence look odder still. Perhaps the hardliners calculate that a failure to rejoin Horizon would severely dent wider hopes for improved relations between Britain and the EU. If the two sides cannot agree over Horizon, which is in the Brexit trade deal, what hope is there of other new agreements? Yet Mr Sunak and the opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer, both claim to want better arrangements in such areas as the movement of people, trade in electric vehicles and technical standards. Researchers and universities say the delay over Horizon has already had a cost in lost grants and weaker cross-border collaboration. Rejoining would help attract investment and talent from abroad. Going it alone would not. If Mr Sunak is serious about supporting British science, he should stop dithering and sign up to Horizon without delay.