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Horizon Europe collaboration ‘vital for Cambridge’s life sciences’

A molecule being added to DNA
A molecule being added to DNA

As the negotiations over the UK’s exit from the European Union reach fever point, many other equally critical post-EU arrangements are in danger of being sidelined – including the fate of the life sciences sector, which is waiting with baited breath on the progress of the Horizon Europe initiative.

Horizon Europe – ‘the Champions League of research’ – is currently being negotiated. A draft budget has been agreed in the Council of the EU, which would commit €11.5billion for the 2021 to 2027 spend. The finalised proposal was submitted to the European Parliament yesterday (October 1), with further consultations before amendments are made in November.

This prestigious academic exchange and research funding programme is a key plank for the Cambridge research community. It remains to be seen whether the UK will participate, which is a cause for concern, says Dr Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute .

“The fear we have as researchers is that the Brexit negotiations are now in their final stages and you can see how well they’re going , but the discussions about research aren’t currently at the top of the agenda so we, as a research community, think time is running out.

“The EU and the UK agree in principle about the involvement of the UK in Horizon Europe and how we are going to collaborate. There are issues to resolve but any investment in science is a win for the UK in perpetuity. The UK has scientific leadership in the world, so we are encouraging both sides to work together in these collaborations, and build new projects.”

The urgency of the situation has sharpened minds.

“We’re trying to work with Wellcome, and the Medical Research Council, to campaign for research,” Julia says. “With all these organisations and universities we can amplify our voices, where before it was very fragmented. It’s almost a collaboration where we’re pushing together, for instance with the Crick Institute. We use similar messaging that we all believe in. Increasingly there’s a group of us that has come together as a life sciences cluster.”

Of all the posturing that has characterised UK politics in recent years nothing has been more damaging than to reduce our relationship with Europe to a purely financial one: beyond the funding that Horizon Europe provides is an intricate network of exchanges, collaborations, shared projects and friendships.

The Sanger Institute on the Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Sanger Institute on the Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton. Picture: Keith Heppell

“In the past we’ve been net beneficiaries of Horizon Europe,” says Julia. “It’s been very successful. Yes, it’s collaborative funding but it’s not transactional like that. We gain so much more – it means networks of scientists tackling a problem with different skill sets and different technologies. It’s the exchange of ideas and skills that helps science in the UK. If you are at the cutting edge of a new technique, your country benefits from that. It is the foundation for a lot of the further science that happens and you can’t put a monetary value on it.

“As associate director I work with the director and our work is keeping the Sanger Institute at the cutting edge of genomics science globally. We are one of the few organisations that work at this scale, so it’s about strategy, partnerships, commercial organisations and governments all discussing policy.

“Successive governments have been very supportive of the life sciences sector and recognise that the UK has a leading position in life sciences and we want to maintain that. Knowledge doesn’t stop at borders and the vast majority of the work at Sanger is done with collaborations all over the world, but the EU and the UK will need to collaborate on life science regulation.

“We don’t want to be burdened by additional bureaucracy, we don’t want a parallel system,” Dr Wilson notes.

Dr Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
Dr Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

The UK government recognises the need to support the flourishing life sciences sector in the UK.

When the science minister, Amanda Solloway, visited Cambridge in August, the Cambridge Independent questioned her on the issue of Horizon Europe.

“We are looking to participate in Horizon Europe. That’s our first choice, as it’s a very worthwhile programme,” she said. “But we are also looking at alternatives just in case that is not possible. We will have something in place and the reassurance I want to give is that we will have something to give the same support that there is now.”

The government has committed to raising GDP spending on the UK’s R&D by 2.4 per cent by 2027 – £22bn.

To reach the overall goal of 2.4 per cent, however, the private sector will need to increase its R&D spending from £26bn to £44bn. The government will try to stimulate this investment by putting £200m in a life sciences venture capital fund and spending £900m on grants to foster business innovation. But the fact remains, the 2.4 per cent increase as outlined in the Life Sciences Recovery Roadmap in July is an aspiration.

Tony Jones, CEO at life sciences networking organisation One Nucleus
Tony Jones, CEO at life sciences networking organisation One Nucleus

The 2.4 per cent target is there with or without funding from Horizon Europe, but it’s real money and an already-established platform, so there is understandable alarm among the research community.

Sanger employs around 1,000 staff, of whom 68 per cent are UK nationals, 20 per cent are EEA nationals, and 12 per cent are from the rest of the world.

Among scientific staff the breakdown is 34 per cent UK, 38 per cent EEA and 28 per cent from the rest of the world.

To show what the sector is capable of, here’s one statistic: with Covid-19, labs and facilities pivoted, and as of September 3 the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium has sequenced 61, 646 virus genomes – far more than half the global total was sequenced in the UK .

Tony Jones, CEO of One Nucleus , says: “The cluster is a major factor in the region’s ability to attract leading investors, researchers and innovators. What attracts these leading minds is the highly connected ecosystem of like-minded and excellent peers where the network enhances their own individual efforts. Collaboration and innovation are embedded within the DNA of the cluster and it has generated an enviable track record of improving patients’ lives.

“Ensuring a post-EU deal to facilitate people movement for scientists and – vitally – securing participation in huge funding programmes such as Horizon Europe are key to the long-term success of this amazing biomedical research success journey.”

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