Agenda: Cancer research faces a crossroads in UK-EU political dispute



DR Payam Gammage at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute is a world-leading expert in how DNA in the cell’s energy factories – mitochondria – mutate to become the engines of cancer. He recently won €2 million funding from the European Research Council but is now forced to make a difficult choice. He can choose between hoping that Horizon Europe association will be ratified, unable to access the money in the meantime. Or he can take the gamble of applying to UKRI for funding, most likely on different terms to the prestigious grant he’s already won.

I am hearing from researchers like Payam that this is becoming the new normal for scientists who want to maintain collaborations and funding post-Brexit. Cancer research is tangled up in the ongoing political dispute on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK’s future involvement in Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship programme for funding scientific research with a budget of more than £80 billion, hangs precariously in the balance.

Cancer scientists and patients in the UK, EU and further afield will be the biggest losers if we walk away from Horizon Europe now. The EU’s recent flagship Cancer Mission is funding talented scientists working together through Horizon Europe to support the research needed to deliver significant improvements in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Read more: Horizon Europe: Brexit hammer blow to Scottish research

Cancer Research UK knows what it takes to build and lead successful scientific partnerships. Our Cancer Grand Challenges scheme, which funds research to tackle some of the biggest fundamental questions in cancer, brings together teams of researchers from the UK, EU, US and further afield to solve these big problems.

It’s through our own experience of building successful international partnerships to tackle cancer that we know that being part of Horizon Europe is overwhelmingly in the best interests of cancer scientists. Horizon Europe, and previous versions of it, provides that ready-made structure for scientists to work together, bidding for funding that could make a difference to countless lives.

The UK Government has been talking up its “Plan B” alternative, but it’s highly unlikely it’ll match up to Horizon Europe. To come even close, it would need to offer substantial commitments to cancer research funding which demonstrates the leadership and talent offered by cancer research in the UK. And whatever the outcome, making sure that the cancer research community is properly consulted on any Government plans will be key.

UK scientists shouldn’t feel that they need to make the choice between moving to an EU member state to guarantee Horizon Europe funding or taking the gamble of a UK-only replacement. Some may end up voting with their feet, which will have dire consequences for the UK’s ambitions to become a science superpower.

A big task for the next Prime Minister and their government will be to break the impasse. My message to them is simple: it’s time to stop using cancer research as a political football. Both the UK and EU must keep the commitment to an association agreement alive, and the new Prime Minister must commit to protecting the UK’s planned financial contribution to Horizon Europe in full. Plan A is still the best option for British science and for the British people.

Dr Ian Walker is Executive Director of Policy, Information and Communications at Cancer Research UK





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