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The Covid vaccine proves a confident Global Britain must engage in international partnerships

Collaborating via Horizon can and should epitomise for science what the Prime Minister called ‘a new era of friendly cooperation’, writes Beth Thompson. | PA Images

Beth Thompson

Beth Thompson

3 min read

We can’t let the UK be left behind. If we aspire to be a global Britain, we must seize the opportunity to work with our European partners to solidify our position as an open and collaborative international research powerhouse.

Hope for a Covid-19 vaccine took a step closer to reality this week. The partnership between US pharma giant, Pfizer, and German biotech company, BioNTech, is symbolic of the international collaboration that drives progress in research.  

Meanwhile, hosting RECOVERY, the world’s largest trial to find effective Covid-19 treatments, exemplifies the UK research strength recognised by the Prime Minister in his Brexit day speech. The UK must build on its strategic strengths like science as it charts a new course towards a bright future. 

For the UK to secure its status as a science superpower on the global stage, domestic policies and investment will not be enough. To be at the forefront of science, we must put ourselves at the very centre of international collaboration.  

Europe’s ‘Horizon’ programmes are a ready-made route to international science collaboration, which we should continue taking part in as an independent country. The programmes provide access to prestigious funding, collaborations, networks and infrastructure. 

That’s why it’s concerning to hear that there are still some in government who are reluctant to collaborate with Europe on science in future, because of what a report described as ‘ministers’ views on the EU rather than the merits of [Horizon]’. For even the most Eurosceptic minister, this particular area of negotiations really ought to be a quickly achievable win-win. We can be separate from Europe and still an open and collaborative international research powerhouse.

A select range of non-EU countries, such as Israel or Switzerland, are allowed to participate in the Horizon schemes, and we are being offered this enormously valuable opportunity as we leave the EU. I don’t believe the Israeli or Swiss governments spent a lot of time debating what taking part means for their countries’ independence – instead they jumped in and their science and research sectors are reaping the rewards.  

We can’t let the UK be left behind. No domestic alternative could replicate the benefits and scale of Horizon. Taking part will enable UK-based researchers and companies to vie with the best in Europe for prestigious funding. We can’t show we’re world-beating without competing on the international stage. Individuals and UK businesses will benefit from access to mission-critical collaborations and infrastructure. 

The UK can’t aspire to be global Britain, but then refuse an unbeatable offer to take part in world-leading global collaborations

Thanks in part to the UK’s influence, the Horizon programmes have become the world leader in international research funding. EU countries are the UK’s biggest research partner, but an association to the Horizon programmes is about much more than Europe. 

The programme is a gateway to the rest of the world: the current programme has supported more than 7,500 collaborative projects involving 149 countries, including the US and China. Having an association to future programmes, will allow the UK to lead – not just take part in – these international mega-projects, giving us impact and influence outside Europe.  

The Horizon partnership is so important that were you actively trying to harm science and technology in the UK, cutting ourselves off from it would be your first move. Breaking our international links would inevitably lead to the UK declining as a place to do science and to do the business of science. Even more importantly, health and human progress would suffer. 

If the price is right, the UK has nothing to lose by associating with Horizon. There is no binary choice between Horizon and collaborating with the rest of the world. The UK can continue to pursue other exciting opportunities elsewhere and its sovereignty will remain intact. 

The right price will mean paying our way and contributing to running costs, but value is also about more than the bottom line. We’ll get our return on investment from being at the heart of the action. In any case, our proposals would ensure the UK’s contributions remain fair. 

The UK can’t aspire to be global Britain, but then refuse an unbeatable offer to take part in world-leading global collaborations. Independence and isolation are not the same. Global Britain must have the confidence to engage in international partnerships. 

Collaborating via Horizon can and should epitomise for science what the Prime Minister called ‘a new era of friendly cooperation’. Separate from one another, but in a mutually beneficial relationship. A confident, global Britain wouldn’t let this opportunity slip by. 


Beth Thompson is the head of UK and EU policy and advocacy at the Wellcome Trust.

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