A group of elite universities has written to the European Commission warning that science and research are “too important” to be used as part of the negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Russell Group said that loss of UK association to Horizon Europe, a major EU research programme, could damage climate change and public health research.
In a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, warned that the decision not to confirm the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe until discussions around the protocol are resolved is a mistake.
In the letter, he said that the loss of association with the major EU research programme would make the programme less competitive, and could be damaging to climate change and public health initiatives.
“Scientists cannot control the outcome of debates over the protocol. Yet science and the solutions it can provide to challenges like net-zero and public health will be the ones that suffer,” he said.
“Russell Group universities have been major players in the European research programmes, particularly in the “Excellent Science” schemes.
“Without the UK’s full association, the programme will become less competitive, with knock-on impacts for the excellence and prestige of EU grants.”
Dr Bradshaw said that the UK’s membership was “too important to be used as part of a negotiation and the current impasse shows this is having no leverage over the Northern Ireland protocol”.
The Government published contingency plans for university research on Wednesday, setting out a long-term alternative to Horizon if the UK’s association is not confirmed.
It said that if association is not confirmed to four EU research schemes, the UK will use funding allocated to Horizon in the 2021 spending review to build on existing research programmes.
A Government guarantee from November 2021 will mean that researchers who were approved for funding before 31 December 2022 can continue their work for the duration of their grant.
Universities UK (UUK), a group of 140 universities which previously described the loss of Horizon membership as “political self-harm”, said that the contingency plans represented the first step in clarifying how the Government would invest in research and development “if association proves impossible”.
UUK added: “For more than 30 years, EU research programmes have enabled cooperation between researchers across the continent to flourish, including in critical sectors like health and climate research.
“If the UK is not able to associate, we must ensure that ambitious alternative funding is put in place quickly. The publication provides much-needed information about how this could be achieved.”
The Russell Group represents 24 research-intensive universities, accounting for 21% of the grants signed for scientific excellence.
Dr Bradshaw said: “The Government has made clear that full association remains its top priority, however the publication of these plans mean walking away from Horizon has become a step closer, and the time left to resolve this is growing short.”