Paul Nurse: UK’s ‘weak’ Pioneer scheme ‘not a good bargaining chip’

Ministers’ blueprint for Horizon alternative will be seen by Brussels as a ‘paper tiger’, warns Crick director

April 19, 2023
Light installation 'Digital Origami Tigers'  on the banks of the River Thames in London to illustrate Sir Paul Nurse: UK’s ‘weak’ Pioneer scheme ‘not a good bargaining chip’
Source: Getty

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse has hit out at the UK government’s decision to publish a detailed draft of its “Plan B” alternative to Horizon Europe, saying Brussels will dismiss the move as a negotiating tactic designed to lower the cost of joining Europe’s flagship research scheme.

Sir Paul, who is director of the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s largest biomedical campus, told MPs on the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee that the publication of a 50-page prospectus for the newly named Pioneer programme – dubbed a “bold, ambitious alternative” to full participation in Horizon Europe – was unlikely to be taken seriously by the European Commission, which is currently in talks about admitting Britain to its £90 billion research initiative.

Instead, the blueprint for a stand-alone British alternative to Horizon, which would run until 2028 and get about £14.8 billion in funding currently earmarked for Horizon, would be regarded as “posturing” with the aim of influencing ongoing negotiations over association, which are believed to have stalled over disagreements on the cost of the UK’s membership.

“They will not take it seriously at all – they will view it as posturing,” said Sir Paul, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001.

“Because they thought [Pioneer] was rather weak, it was not a good bargaining chip,” he added, saying the scheme would be dismissed as a “paper tiger”.

Sir Paul said he believed the European Commission’s proposed offer was “generous and recognised the two-year hiatus [in association] that was possibly a sticking point”.

“We are dithering too much and sending mixed messages with Pioneer – I think the prime minister is dragging his feet,” he continued.

Hiring world-class scientists would become much harder without Horizon association, explained Sir Paul, who said he was routinely asked by potential hires to the Crick if they would have access to “powerhouse” laboratories in France and Germany when they joined.

“There is no excuse whatsoever not to associate – if we do not associate I see us drifting off into the cold north Atlantic by ourselves,” continued Sir Paul.

That sentiment was shared by Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, who was asked by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch about the apparently warm reception among university and sector groups received by Pioneer when it was published earlier this month and whether it might be viewed as an adequate replacement for Horizon.

“I would not overinterpret the relief that Pioneer produced [in the scientific community] as enthusiasm,” said Professor Tracey, adding: “There is a reason that it’s called ‘Plan B’.”

Professor Tracey also noted the Pioneer scheme’s funding would be “subject to spending reviews” – a caveat that echoed the recent announcement that the Treasury had clawed back some £1.6 billion in unspent research funding originally earmarked to fund the cost of Horizon association in 2022-23.

“That this happened did not instil any confidence that there would not be any more of that happening,” said Professor Tracey on the funding uncertainty implicit in Pioneer.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society who was commissioned four years ago by the Westminster government with UCL professor Graeme Reid to write a Plan B to Horizon, also told MPs that even creating a fellowship scheme similar to the European Research Council’s would be hard, noting the EU could draw on a pool of 30,000 academics across 34 countries for selection decisions.

“Setting up a rival scheme would, practically, be very difficult when you are already up against an existing scheme,” he said, adding that Rishi Sunak had recently written to him stating “that his preference was Horizon”, echoing science secretary Michelle Donelan’s “personal commitment” to this option.

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