Exclusive:UK's science and technology industries held hostage over Brexit, leading tech entrepreneur says

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Cambridge University entrepreneur in residence Ewan Kirk said the new Horizon funding deal was "much, much worse" than it was before Brexit.

The UK's science and technology community has been held hostage over Brexit and will suffer even with the new Horizon deal, a leading Cambridge University academic has said.

Ewan Kirk is the leading university's entrepreneur in residence, chair of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences and one of the largest private funders of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) causes in the country. The 62-year-old says a lack of freedom of movement is holding Britain's science and tech industries back and wants to allow anyone with a Stem degree to be able to move to the UK hassle-free if they have a job. "We've destroyed our reputation for pragmatism and competence," he said.

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And Kirk hit out at Rishi Sunak's recent announcement on the UK's return to the £85 billion EU Horizon science funding programme, saying we're getting a significantly worse deal than before Brexit. British scientists had been frozen out of the scheme in a tit-for-tat retaliation over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland in 2020.

"Horizon has been portrayed as this great thing - we have Brexit and we've also got the Horizon programme," the Cantab Capital Partners hedge fund founder told NationalWorld in a wide-ranging interview. "We actually had a much, much better deal with free movement as a member of the European Union. And it is critical to this country that we're good at science."

Ewan Kirk. Credit: Ewan KirkEwan Kirk. Credit: Ewan Kirk
Ewan Kirk. Credit: Ewan Kirk | Ewan Kirk

Before Brexit "we had our pick of the smartest and best scientists and engineers from all over Europe", Kirk explained. "They wanted to come to the UK because we have a fabulous education system, we’ve got a tech cluster and we speak English, which means we’ve got that crossover with the US."

Now after "three years of horse trading the UK's national crown jewels we've got a worse deal than before", Kirk said, explaining that the lack of freedom of movement massively impedes who British science and tech businesses can hire - even with the Horizon deal.

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He explained that now scientists will have to apply for a visa and pay a health surcharge, whereas before they could just fly over and start work the next day.

"To hold our scientific community hostage for political gains is just something that should never ever have happened," he slammed.

"What we’ve ended up with is technically a worse deal than full membership, both on the claw back agreement and the fact we can be frozen out of certain agreements." Associate members cannot take part in programmes which involved "competitiveness and security".

Ewan Kirk is one of the UK's biggest donors to Stem causes. Credit: Ewan KirkEwan Kirk is one of the UK's biggest donors to Stem causes. Credit: Ewan Kirk
Ewan Kirk is one of the UK's biggest donors to Stem causes. Credit: Ewan Kirk | Ewan Kirk

"It’s also functionally a worse agreement because we’re out of the EU. We still have to get visas for people, they still have to cover this ludicrous health surcharge."

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Kirk, whose net worth was previously given as £225m by the Sunday Times Rich List, explained that the UK has missed out on funding and being part of key programmes. The Labour Party estimated that British scientists have missed out on £1 billion worth of Horizon funding a year.

"Maybe once this has settled down, and everyone agrees that the UK is back for good and not going to throw the toys out of the pram, then we might be more involved," he said.

"Everything happens at the margin, and if you’re a researcher in Europe and you’re looking at the UK to collaborate with, you’re probably going to say no not yet. We’ve destroyed reputation for pragmatism and competence."

Kirk - who has donated more than £7 million to Stem causes - says the key to helping science and tech industries is restoring freedom of movement so we "get the best people for that job, almost entirely friction free". He is proposing removing all restrictions for people with science, technology, engineering and maths degrees, allowing them to come to the UK with their family if they have a job.

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"Generally young mobile-earning scientists and technologists are exactly the people you want in the country," he said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the new Horizon agreement was “the right deal for British taxpayers”. He said: "With a wealth of expertise and experience to bring to the global stage, we have delivered a deal that enables UK scientists to confidently take part in the world’s largest research collaboration programme – Horizon Europe. We have worked with our EU partners to make sure that this is right deal for the UK, unlocking unparalleled research opportunities."

While Science Secretary Michelle Donelan added: "We will not pay for a second of time in which we were not members of the programme and our deal also protects and benefits hard-working taxpayers through a new clawback mechanism. And what’s more, our scientists and researchers can benefit from Horizon today, meaning that they can immediately bid into the programme with certainty over funding.”

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