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UK readies summer rollout of Horizon R&D alternative amid Brexit row

LONDON — The U.K. will start rolling out a domestic replacement for the EU’s flagship research and development program after the summer if Brussels continues to block its association to the scheme over Brexit rows.

Science Minister George Freeman told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Treasury are finalizing discussions on how to reallocate funds set aside to pay for Horizon Europe association toward a replacement mechanism for U.K.-based scientists.

Although he said Britain’s preference remains to take part in the EU program, Freeman accused the European Commission of putting on ice their association agreement as a way to increase pressure on London over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, and warned “time was running out.”

“The Commission has numerous ways if it feels they need to punish the U.K. as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol,” he said, referring to the part of the Brexit divorce deal designed to prevent a hard border between the region and the Republic of Ireland, which the U.K. wants to rewrite. “And my plea is please not this way, because everyone will suffer, Europe will suffer.”

Many British scientists awarded grants under Horizon Europe over the last year have had to either give up on them or find a new research institution in the EU 27 or any other associated country which could host their projects, because Britain’s association has not been concluded.

Freeman said the government would speed up work on Britain’s “plan B” over the summer while awaiting a call from Brussels. But he said academics needed certainty, so BEIS will publish a “prospectus” before the summer recess setting out details on the U.K. domestic alternative.

This replacement scheme will, he said, be rolled out gradually and include different funding streams, with “very strong” international fellowships for individual scientists, designed to compensate for the loss of access to the European Research Council. The ERC regarded in Britain as one of the most valuable parts of Horizon Europe.

This element of the U.K.’s alternative could be launched as early as September, but the rollout of the whole domestic scheme would take about 18 months, Freeman said.

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