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UK Facing ‘Brain Drain’ of Cancer Researchers After Failure to Join EU Scheme

Delay joining the Horizon Europe programme making it more difficult to attract and retain the brightest scientists

Top young cancer researchers are leaving the UK in a “brain drain” fuelled by the continuing failure to reach an agreement over the EU’s study programme, scientists warn.

The two-and-a-half-year delay in joining the £85bn Horizon Europe scheme, the largest collaborative research programme in the world, has “damaged the UK’s reputation” and made it more difficult to attract and retain the brightest researchers into the nation’s labs.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) surveyed 84 cancer specialists about Horizon Europe and found that three-quarters of respondents favoured association with the programme compared with only 11% who wanted the UK to go it alone with the government’s plan B, known as Pioneer.

While the UK negotiated membership of Horizon Europe as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the EU delayed ratification in retaliation for the row over trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The new arrangement with Europe has deterred top scientists from coming to the UK according to the CRUK poll, with 76% of respondents saying it had caused difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Only 16% said the post-Brexit relationship had not affected such staffing.

Prof Julian Downward, head of the Oncogene Biology Lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: “We need Horizon Europe very badly. The current situation is damaging UK science every day. We are losing top junior faculty regularly who decide to move to EU countries so they can take up European Research Council grants.”

“The UK faces a brain drain of scientific talent unless we can make the UK more attractive to international talent,” he added. “Being able to bid for grants in Horizon Europe is an essential step towards that.”

Prior to Brexit, the UK was one of the top beneficiaries of the EU’s Horizon funding programme, the predecessor to Horizon Europe. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK paid nearly £4.3bn into EU research projects and received nearly £7bn back in grants, amounting to more than £300m in research funds each year.

With Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, that funding stream has all but dried up. Data from the European Commission show that in 2019, UK researchers were awarded €959.3m (£828.8m) in 1,3643 grants, compared with only €22.18m (£19m) in 192 grants so far this year.

Expectations were running high that a final deal would be announced in July after talks between Rishi Sunak and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, at the Nato summit in Vilnius. But negotiations have stalled over the cost of association to Horizon Europe, with the UK arguing that contributions should be based on the success rate of its 2023 applications rather than funds awarded in 2019 as set down in the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement.

Dr Ian Walker at CRUK said the lengthy delay over Horizon Europe had “damaged” the UK’s reputation. “Cancer scientists are finding it much harder to bring the brightest and best into their labs,” he said. “Not having access to Horizon Europe on the same terms as researchers in the EU would mean UK scientists at the margins, rather than at the centre, of future funding opportunities.”

“Hopes have been raised that a deal is close and it’s imperative that the UK and EU get association over the line,” he added. “Time is of the essence.”

Source : The Guardian