Science minister Johnson concerned over EU science cash

Amid the political storm surrounding last week’s “Brexit” referendum vote, UK science minister Jo Johnson has sought to send out a “keep calm and carry on”-style message over funding for science research.

But his message that EU science funding would remain, at least for the time being, at a press briefing in London was immediately overshadowed as his brother, Boris Johnson, ruled himself out of running for prime minister.

Jo Johnson, who unlike his brother supported remaining in the EU, did his best to address the issue of Brexit and its impact on science research funding.

But he admitted under questioning from science journalists that there was anecdotal evidence that UK science projects were already being denied funding from the EU’s “Horizon 2020” initiative.

Johnson said: “I have not been given a dossier of evidence that suggests this is happening, but there are suggestions that it might be, anecdotally.”

Technically UK organisations can still apply for this money while it officially remains part of the EU.

The 80 billion euro Horizon 2020 pot funds the Innovative Medicines Initiative public-private partnership between the European Commission and pharma, and although Johnson stressed that the UK is still a member of the EU until Brexit is officially invoked, there are growing concerns about how long this financial lifeline will remain in place.

The UK has secured 15.4% of the Horizon 2020 funding allocated in the latest round of funding, second only to Germany, which had 16.5% of the funds.

“I would be concerned about any discrimination against UK participants and am in close touch with (Research, Science and Innovation) Commissioner Moedas on these issues,” said Johnson.

Earlier this week Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society national science academy, said in a speech to politicians that around 10% of university research is EU funded, as because of austerity, Britain had turned to Europe to supplement R&D funding.

Ramakrishnan said that “with Brexit, this EU funding is now at risk.”

And following Johnson’s speech, Ramakrishnan said the government must reassure around 30,000 EU academics and scientists in the UK that their status is safe to ensure they do not take their expertise elsewhere.

“That single step alone will go a long way to reassuring the community and it will also go a long way in maintaining our image as a welcoming and open society,” he told BBC News.

His predecessor, Sir Paul Nurse, called for free movement of people to remain to ensure the UK continues to attract the brightest scientific minds and remain eligible for EU science money.

In his speech, Jo Johnson gave no assurances about long-term EU funding, which according to some in the Remain camp will likely be conditional on the UK remaining part of the single market and accepting the principle of free movement of labour.

European leaders have already said in the run-up to the referendum, that the UK will have to accept free movement of people in order to remain part of this market.

But as immigration became a key issue in the referendum, it is unclear whether the UK will in future enjoy the benefits of this market if it is unprepared to accept the free movement obligation.

Scientists for Britain, which supported the Leave campaign, has argued that the UK could still get EU research funding, without accepting a commitment to free movement of labour.

Some non-EU countries such as Norway, Turkey and Israel benefit from the EU research money – but they do not get a say in setting rules or deciding budgets.

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