UK signs first post-Brexit life science agreement with Sweden

The UK and Sweden have signed a co-operation agreement in life sciences, aimed at strengthening academic research and commercial collaboration as Britain seeks to deepen scientific ties with other nations after Brexit.

The memorandum of understanding, signed in London on Friday in the presence of Sweden’s king and queen, is the first bilateral science agreement the UK has reached with an EU member state since Brexit.

The agreement provides a framework for knitting together the two countries’ life sciences strategies over a wide range of areas, from early diagnostics and genomics to pharmaceutical manufacturing.

“We are absolutely committed to international collaboration,” George Freeman, UK science minister, said. “We may have left the European monetary and political union, but we want all the more to deepen our science ties.

“This agreement is part of our strengthening of bilateral scientific relations — with Israel, Switzerland and now Sweden — following Brexit. Japan and South Korea will be next,” Freeman added.

King Carl XVI Gustaf told the Financial Times that post-Brexit Britain faced a future of “endless bilateral agreements which will make life difficult — but we need each other in science”.

He added: “Our agreement ties together the really strong knot that already exists between scientists in Britain and Sweden, which we need to carry out R&D for the future of society.”

Although the December 2020 Brexit withdrawal treaty provided for the UK to join the EU’s €96bn Horizon Europe research programme, Brussels has consistently refused to allow it to take up associate membership because of a long-running dispute with the UK government over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

The UK is formulating a “plan B” for international scientific co-operation in case its bid to join Horizon Europe fails.

Scientific collaboration between Sweden and the UK is already close, anchored in pharmaceuticals by AstraZeneca, the drug company created by the 1999 merger of Britain’s Zeneca with Sweden’s Astra.

Anna Ekström, Sweden’s education and research minister: ‘We are interested in having a very good relationship with Britain when it comes to research’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

On Thursday, the royal couple toured the company’s new research centre in Cambridge. The UK comes second after the US in jointly authored research papers for Swedish scientists.

“We are interested in having a very good relationship with Britain when it comes to research,” said Anna Ekström, Sweden’s education and research minister. “But naturally, things were easier before Brexit.”

The agreement memorandum does not immediately launch any new UK-Swedish research programmes but sets out a mechanism for doing so in future. Antimicrobial resistance — finding new antibiotics to treat superbugs and fighting overprescription of existing drugs — is one priority.

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, the leading UK biomedical research lab, welcomed the agreement: “In these times when science is under significant difficulties as a consequence of Brexit, we have to encourage every linkage we can make with continental Europe.”

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