George Freeman reappointed science minister in latest incarnation of UK government

27 Oct 2022 | News

EU research community welcomes Freeman back and hopes this improves the chances of the UK taking part in Horizon Europe

George Freeman, UK science minister. Photo: Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament

George Freeman has been reappointed as UK science minister four months after he resigned from the post when former prime minister Boris Johnson lost power.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general at The Guild of European Research Intensive universities welcomed the news, telling Science|Business, Freeman knows the science sector and “gets the importance of Europe.”

Similarly, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities said, “At least we have a man in place [who knows] what the file is about, so that is already good news.”

Deketelaere noted that Freeman is in favour of the UK being an associate member of Horizon Europe and has spoken about the negative impact on UK science of not being involved in the research programme. “All in all a good appointment, it could have been much worse,” he said.

But Palmowski said the science community will have to regroup to try and convince the new UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and finance minister Jeremy Hunt, that association to Horizon Europe is worth salvaging from the wreck of post-Brexit political disputes. “Freeman will understand but [Sunak and Hunt] will be a big priority for us now,” said Palmowski.

Freeman was among the mass ranks of ministers who left Johnson’s government in July. Liz Truss replaced Johnson in September and after some delay appointed Nusrat Ghani as minister for science and investment security on October 3. She remains as a minister in the department for business, but it has not been made clear exactly what her portfolio is.

During Truss’ mandate, the UK requested a meeting with the EU to break the deadlock over joining Horizon Europe and at the time a compromise agreement on a partial association was rumoured to be on the table.

The UK has been locked out of Horizon Europe since the European Commission made it clear participation is possible only after Brussels and London settle the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit agreement under which Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market, meaning there are customs checks on goods arriving there from the rest of the UK.

With negotiations on UK association held up by the row over the Northern Ireland protocol, Freeman was involved in designing a £15 billion ‘Plan B’ alternative.

A few weeks before his resignation Freeman went to Brussels to warn the UK was losing patience. “If the phone doesn’t ring in autumn, we’ll have to go,” he told a reception at the British ambassador’s residence.

Most ministers appointed in the Sunak cabinet were previously members of either the Johnson or the Truss cabinets. Sunak himself was one of the most prominent Brexiteers and has voted in favour of a bill currently going through the UK parliament that would unilaterally revoke parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. “I am not expecting a massive change [in attitude towards the EU] although that’s what I think we need,” said Palmowski.

In a paper published last month, a think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in the UK said that hopes for full association in Horizon Europe are “fading fast” and the research community should work towards making the Plan B a success. “If full participation in Horizon Europe is not possible – despite being the clear preference of the UK research community – then we must make the best of Plan B,” said HEPI director Nick Hillman.

However, Palmowski noted the UK government has not given significant details on its Plan B, articulating rules for cooperation with other countries. That is one of the main strengths of Horizon Europe and will be difficult to implement in any new UK scheme. “Not least for practical reasons, there is no alternative to Horizon association,” Palmowski said.

In September, the UK moved to take the EU to arbitration under the dispute-resolution terms of the post-Brexit trade and cooperation agreement. It is not clear whether Sunak’s government will press ahead with this. “Clarity is needed on that as soon as possible,” said Deketelaere.

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