After years of excruciating delays, elated scientists welcome agreement
The U.K. government announced this morning it will rejoin the European Union’s €95 billion research funding program known as Horizon Europe. The move gives U.K. scientists access to a major source of grants they had benefited from before their country pulled out of the EU in early 2020. After years of Brexit-induced uncertainty and despair, the United Kingdom and the European Commission say they have reached an “agreement in principle” over a deal for the U.K. to benefit again from the scheme.
U.K. scientists and science groups welcomed the announcement with relief. “It couldn’t be better news,” says Daniel Rathbone, deputy executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. But the delays have “caused a lot of damage and created a lot of distrust,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester. “It will take a few years to recover from that.”
Horizon Europe funds individual researchers and cross-border scientific consortia in the EU and “associated” non-EU countries, which pay into the scheme in return for the chance to win grants and join international collaborations. All that was put in jeopardy in 2016 when U.K. voters decided in a referendum to leave the EU. Although the U.K.’s association with Horizon Europe was negotiated as part of the 2020 Brexit withdrawal agreement, disputes over trade in Northern Ireland soured relations with the EU and the Commission refused to sign off on the deal. The impasse over Northern Ireland broke in February, but funding remained a sticking point because the U.K. no longer felt its original deal was good value for money.
Now, negotiations have concluded and U.K. researchers will once again be able to fully participate in the program. From the beginning of next year, the U.K. will rejoin Horizon Europe as an associated country, paying €2.6 billion per year for access to the scheme, according to the Commission’s announcement. The U.K. will also rejoin Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation program. But it will not rejoin the fusion program Euratom, instead pursuing a £650 million “domestic alternative,” according to an announcement from the U.K. prime minister’s office.
Under the newly negotiated deal, the U.K. will not pay into Horizon for the 3 years it has not been part of the scheme. And it will be able to recoup funding if U.K. scientists receive “significantly less money” than the U.K.’s annual contribution, according to the government’s announcement. This resolves the U.K.’s concerns that the country might sink far more money into Horizon than it would receive back in grants. It’s a “shrewd agreement,” according to a public statement by conservative lawmaker Greg Clark, who leads the cross-party Science, Innovation and Technology Committee and has been outspoken about the damage done by delays.
The deal still needs approval by EU member states, but there is no reason to worry this may not happen, says James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at UCL. With the new clarity and certainty, “levels of U.K. participation will kick back in—hopefully, with some speed,” he says. Researchers in the U.K. will be able to apply to Horizon funding calls this year, with a transitional arrangement allowing the U.K. to provide the funding for any grants that they win. This is essentially a continuation of the government’s guarantee during the U.K.’s years of limbo to fund scientists who successfully bid for Horizon grants but are unable to take them up.
Scientists may be relieved to hear the U.K. will not need to turn to its “Plan B” announced by science minister George Freeman in July 2022. This plan, later dubbed Pioneer, would have seen the U.K. spend contributions earmarked for Horizon on its own international funding scheme—but commentators worried the plan could not replace the seamlessness and scale of international collaborations supported by Horizon. Still, “It would be good if some aspects of the work that went into Plan B could still find some purpose in life,” Wilsdon says. “It would be a great shame if all of that work went to waste.”
Researchers will particularly welcome the news that they will once more be able to lead Horizon collaborations, says Martin Smith, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity that supports research. Since 2020, U.K. scientists have not been allowed to serve as the “intellectual driving force” leading Horizon projects, which has limited the options of local scientists and made the U.K. an unattractive destination for talented hires, he says. The U.K. once had “recognized expertise and capability” in leading scientific consortia, says Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International—and researchers will be excited to be able to step into these roles once again. Horizon, whose successor program will begin in 2028, now extends to a number of associated countries outside Europe, including New Zealand and Israel, with Canada and South Korea seeking to join. “Horizon is really the place where it’s happening when it comes to international collaboration,” Smith says. “For the U.K. to be part of this is very exciting.” But the U.K. may find itself back at the negotiating table for future rounds, with the outcome dependent on ongoing good relations with the EU, Flanagan says.
The drop in EU-U.K. collaborations should now “snap back” as quickly as possible, says Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association: “It’s about calling your British colleagues who you were afraid to call before because you didn’t know of the status of Horizon, and say[ing], ‘OK, now we know. Let’s get working.’”