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Relief for UK science and research as government announces EU deal to rejoin Horizon

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 7, 2023
Summary:
The EU’s scientific research scheme, Horizon, is one of the largest in the world. However, the UK had been excluded from membership for three years over Brexit disagreements.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that after a three year exclusion, the UK will finally be rejoining the EU’s flagship - and world leading - scientific research scheme. UK-based scientists and research institutions will be able to apply from money from the €95 billion fund from today, much to the relief of many of those in the community. 

The UK has pitched itself as having ‘science superpower’ ambitions, but many of those involved in science and research have criticized the government in recent years for excluding itself from the EU funds over Brexit disagreements. 

Prior to Brexit, the UK was one of leading beneficiaries of Horizon, often securing the most funds from the programme compared to other EU nations. However, UK-based research institutions and programmes have been left in limbo for years after the EU excluded the UK from Horizon, because the UK had sought to amend the Northern Ireland protocol without using the official dispute-resolution system that was agreed upon as part of Brexit negotiations. 

Many scientists and researchers had threatened to leave the UK and relocate to the UK as a result. The government did announce plans last year to plug the gap in funds, but as is often the case with Brexit, what the UK can achieve on its own is less beneficial than what it can achieve in cooperation with its closest trading partners. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has taken a less adversarial approach to EU negotiations and announced this morning that the UK would be joining Horizon under a new “bespoke deal”. The UK will be a participating associated member for the remaining life of the programme, through to 2027. 

The deal will have to be ratified by EU member states, but once adopted, the British government said that the UK will also be able to join the governance of EU programmes and can help shape collaboration next year. 

According to 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the final arrangements on a call yesterday (Wednesday 6th September) and urged UK scientists to apply with confidence from today. 

Prime Minister Sunak said: 

Innovation has long been the foundation for prosperity in the UK, from the breakthroughs improving healthcare to the technological advances growing our economy.

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, and also the right deal for British taxpayers.

Details

The UK will also associate to Copernicus, the European Earth Observation programme, which the government said will provide the UK’s earth observation sector with access to unique data - which could be valuable in helping with early flood and fire warnings, for instance. Again, the UK hasn’t had access to this data for three years. 

However, the UK will not be associating to the EU’s fusion Euratom programme and will instead be pursuing a domestic agenda that is being backed by £650 million. 

The European Commission has said that the decision will be “beneficial to both” the UK and the EU and that it is estimated that the UK will contribute almost €2.6 billion per year on average for its participation in Horizon and Copernicus. However, the UK will not have to pay for the time it was excluded from the programmes, since 2021. 

European Commision President, Ursula von der Leyen, said: 

The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.

Unsurprisingly, the science and research community will be relieved upon hearing the announcement, having highlighted the damage being done to the UK’s position on the global stage and having urged the government for years to reconsider its position. 

Responding to the deal, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, President of Universities UK, said: 

The entire research community, within our universities and beyond, will be delighted at the news that an agreement has been reached. Overcoming the obstacles to association was no small feat and we are grateful to the government and the commission for their perseverance to secure this successful outcome.  

Horizon Europe has been the basis of scientific collaboration for over 30 years. From early detection of ovarian cancer to developing clean energy networks involving dozens of universities and many industrial partners,  Horizon lets us do things that would not be possible without that scale of collaboration.

Allowing our scientists to work together, irrespective of borders, is in all of our interests. Our universities will now do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation and is able to secure genuine value, delivering the wealth of research opportunities available.

My take

A positive step forward for UK-EU relations and some relief for the science and research community. However, how much damage has been done to science and research in the UK over the past three years? It’s hard to know, but it’s undeniable there’s been a great deal of resentment amongst the community given the consequences of Brexit. It will take time to recover and for trust to be restored, but we can hope that this news paves the way for a more agreeable relationship with the UK’s closest trading partners over the coming years. 

 

 

 

 

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