A deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could pave the way for talks on the UK joining prestigious European Union research programmes, scientists said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled a political agreement in principle, known as the Windsor Framework, which could break a long-running stalemate on issues affecting post-Brexit trade and rules in Northern Ireland.
During a joint press conference on Monday, Ms von der Leyen spoke of opening "a new chapter in our partnership", which scientists interpreted as a green light for fresh negotiations on UK participation in international programmes such as Horizon Europe, Euratom, and Copernicus.
Professor Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, commented to the Science Media Centre that with a deal on Northern Ireland "tantalisingly close", there was now hope that "the largest barrier to achieving UK association to Horizon Europe may shortly be lifted". Membership would be "the best possible outcome for research and for the health of people everywhere" and achieving it "the single biggest step we can take right now to deliver on the UK's ambitions to be a world leader in science", she added.
However, Professor Sir John Hardy, chair of the molecular biology of neurological disease at University College London, warned that the reputation of UK science had suffered "irreversible" harm from dropping out of collaborative research projects. He said that "grants will have been written without us and we will now have to try and re-join these networks, some of which we once led, as supplicants".
Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology, called for "clarity" from the Government on the steps it would take "to secure the potential of UK science".
The agreement between London and Brussels also proposes a solution to the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. The main issue involved UK manufacturers of commonly prescribed generic drugs, which faced regulatory hurdles supplying products to Northern Ireland where EU regulations on supply remained in place.
Under the Windsor Protocol, suppliers would only need to secure approval for a UK-wide licence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to supply medicines to Northern Ireland. In a statement to the Commons on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement "provides dual regulation for medicines", and meant that "the same medicines, in the same packs, with the same labels, will be available in every pharmacy and hospital in the United Kingdom ".
Ms von der Leyen said: "For this to work, we have agreed on safeguards like IT access, labels, and enforcement procedures that will protect the integrity of the European Union's single market."
The agreement was welcomed by the British Generic Manufacturers Association, whose chief executive, Mark Samuels, said it was an important principle that UK patients "should be able to access the same medicines in Birmingham or Belfast". He added that the Framework "provides certainty for manufacturers that there should be no obstruction to the supply chain, which could have made providing generic medicines to Northern Ireland financially unfeasible".
Sinn Féin has welcomed a deal being struck, whilst the Democratic Unionist Party said it was examining details in the document.
The Prime Minister flew to Belfast on Tuesday to garner backing for the Framework among interested parties.