A University of Cambridge astrophysicist studying the Milky Way and hoping to play a major role in the next big European Space Agency (ESA) project has been forced to hand over his coordinating role on the project after the row over the Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland has put science in the firing line.
Nicholas Walton, a researcher at the Institute of Astronomy, reluctantly handed over his leadership role in the Marie Curie Network’s €2.8 million pan-European research project to a colleague in the Netherlands on Friday.
The European Commission had written to him to inform him that UK scientists could not hold senior positions because the UK’s membership of the flagship £80bn Horizon Europe (HE) funding network had not been ratified.
Walton was to lead a doctoral network linked to Esa’s Gaia mission that maps nearly 2 billion stars in the Milky Way.
He is one of the few UK physicists approved for an HE fellowship, but now has to take a passenger seat in his own project.
Carsten Welsch, a physicist at the University of Liverpool who has secured €2.6m funding, also from the Marie Curie Network, for long-term research into a new plasma generator, also faces the same dilemma – move to the EU or hand over leadership to an EU institution to take on the research role.
“As the UK’s association with Horizon Europe is not complete, we now run a real risk of losing our leadership in this consortium and being marginalized.
“It’s really heartbreaking, given the long and extremely successful experience of scientific collaboration between the UK and the EU,” he said.
Welsch and Walton say the loss of their role in research networks is only part of the picture. With Horizon, Europe is at the forefront of larger projects worth billions of euros involving networks of universities and industries.
“The damage is already done… our influence is eroding,” Welsch said.
Walton’s coordination role came with the opportunity to be part of the European team defining the scientific case for Gaia’s €1 billion successor, ESA’s Voyage 2050 program and to train a new cohort of astronomers.
“It’s about jobs and the economy and ultimately it makes the UK a wealthier society,” he said.
Last week, the EU’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, admitted that British science could be “a victim of the political stalemate”.
Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said: “The window for association is rapidly closing and we must ensure that political issues do not stand in the way of a sensible solution. We have always been very clear that association is the preferred outcome to protect decades of collaborative research, and the benefits it has brought to the lives of people across the continent and beyond.
Welsch is considering his options and said an offer from the UK to step in with alternative funding is “fantastic in principle”.
But he says it’s not a replacement.
“While the UK’s Research and Innovation Guarantee Fund provides vital financial support and allows UK institutions to contribute as associated partners (without EU funding), this means that UK institutions can no longer lead projects, can no longer be in charge of project stages and overall it feels like the UK is losing significant leadership.