Freeman: post-Brexit uncertainty risks ‘deepening brain drain’

Science minister hits out at lack of Treasury support for Plan B science scheme amid Westminster chaos

July 6, 2022
Westminster, Houses of Parliament
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There are growing doubts about the future of a UK-based alternative to Horizon Europe after science minister George Freeman warned that lack of Treasury support “risks a deepening brain drain” and a “crisis of confidence” in British science.

As Westminster was convulsed by ministerial resignations and calls for Boris Johnson to leave Downing Street, Mr Freeman used Twitter to highlight what he called a “critical meeting” of a Cabinet committee on a replacement scheme for the European Union’s flagship research programme, from which the UK has been excluded.

“Lack of HMT [Her Majesty’s Treasury] commitment to shape [and] funding of a bold Plan B risks a deepening brain drain & crisis of confidence & credibility in UK #sciencesuperpower mission,” tweeted Mr Freeman on 6 July.

Mr Freeman also tweeted a Financial Times report detailing his clashes with the Treasury that outlined fears by the science minister’s allies that “penny-pinching” over Plan B could lead to a “brain drain”.

At stake is about £2 billion earmarked for research funding. That money was promised for 2021-22 in last autumn’s budget on the understanding that the UK would enter Horizon Europe, with a commitment that it would be rolled over into domestic spending in future years if association did not take place.

But the continued impasse over Horizon Europe membership, which the EU says cannot happen until trade issues related to the Northern Ireland border are settled, has raised the prospect that this money might not be “reprofiled”, it is believed.

Mr Freeman’s supporters told the FT that they feared that the £2 billion could be “top-sliced” from the science budget, causing immense harm to research teams previously dependent on EU science funding.

Last month, Mr Freeman told a parliamentary committee that he intended to release details of the Plan B funding scheme before the summer recess, which starts on 22 July, amid growing concerns over the UK’s exclusion from Horizon Europe.

Last week, the European Research Council said it was terminating 115 grants offered to UK-based researchers, of which 19 had agreed to move their projects abroad to allow them to keep their funding.

Despite a tumultuous two days for the UK government, in which Rishi Sunak’s resignation as chancellor triggered a tidal wave of resignations by more junior ministers and parliamentary aides, Mr Freeman has indicated that he intends to remain in post.

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