Colin Budd / Oct 2023
On 7 September 2023 the government finally announced that the UK will rejoin Horizon Europe, on the basis of a new deal with the EU. UK researchers can now again apply for grants and bid to take part in and lead projects under the Horizon programme, with formal association starting on 1 January 2024.
This is unequivocally excellent news. Horizon is the EU’s science and research framework, the current instalment of which started in 2021, without the UK involved, and runs till 2027, with a budget of £82 billion. Before Brexit, UK science was preeminent in Europe, influential in the choice of priorities for support, and consistently vying with Germany as the biggest beneficiary of the Horizon programme, as regards both grants and leadership positions – taking more funding out than it was putting in.
The UK science community has throughout argued strongly for the UK to participate in Horizon, and that an alternative British programme would simply not be an adequate substitute. There was therefore much discontent as the UK/EU agreement on Horizon first reached in late 2020 fell through, and again proved elusive after the settlement reached in the Windsor framework last February.
It is thus very good news that an agreement is now firmly in place. Under the terms of the new deal the UK will not need to pay into the Horizon budget for the period for which it was absent, with its contribution beginning again only in January 2024. And there is a clawback mechanism, whereby the UK will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.
On the down side, there is also an overperformance provision – what you might ironically call one of the “benefits of Brexit” – providing for an increase in the UK’s contribution if its receipts in grants exceed its financial contribution by more than eight per cent over two successive years, whereas when it was a full member of Horizon the UK’s very substantial returns from the programme were never subject to any limitation.
Nonetheless, this outcome enables us to build on the highly successful collaborations of the past in order to maximise the scope for working together with EU member states in the years to come.
Sadly, however, it must be registered that our three year absence from Horizon has been far from cost free.
Ewan Kirk, Chair of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge, argues that our absence from the project has done deep, long term damage to the UK’s science and technology ecosystem, which will require a concerted effort from the government to repair. The number of EU researchers working in the UK has plummeted. Sharp increases in visa and health charges have made the UK much less appealing for talented EU researchers and their families: estimated up-front costs for a foreign researcher with a partner and two children are now over £20,000. Many scientists moreover have had to leave the UK to continue accessing Horizon grants and working collaboratively with European colleagues, and leaders have tended to take their research teams with them.
Kirk argues that we need an independent inquiry to uncover the extent of the damage to UK science, and to make proposals for remedying it. He is also pressing for commitments from all the major UK political parties to renew our membership of Horizon after the current funding cycle ends in 2027; and for a new streamlined visa system targeted at bringing skilled EU researchers and students to the UK.
Many prominent UK scientists agree with him, and point out that if it had been in Horizon during the last three years the UK would have had opportunities, now missed, to take up key leading roles in major programmes on (inter alia) climate change, AI and new medicines.
Above all, both the European Commission and the British government must come to realise that in this of all fields it is quite simply wrong to take UK membership of Horizon hostage because of other UK/EU problems or disagreements. As the record shows, when it comes to scientific cooperation the UK has a major contribution to make, to the benefit not just of the UK itself but of the rest of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. It would be foolish in the extreme to put at risk any further the added value which can be expected to flow from proper pan-European scientific cooperation.
When the time comes in 2025/26 to review the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, both sides should make it unambiguously clear that they are committed to ensuring the UK’s continuing involvement in the Horizon programme, when it is next renewed. The stronger our scientific links with the EU, the more the rest of the world will value close collaboration with us.