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The UK has joined the EU’s Horizon science funding scheme – but if we want the UK to lead, the hard work has just begun

The UK government’s announcement that it had rejoined the European Union’s Horizon Europe science funding programme was cause for celebration among researchers in Britain and across Europe. But what will the terms of the deal – and the long time the UK was out of the programme – mean for those researchers and the country more generally?

The UK had been a full member of the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme until the country formally left the bloc in 2020. Following lengthy negotiations, the UK has now joined Horizon as an associate member – an arrangement open to non-EU countries.

Horizon Europe is the world’s largest multilateral research funding pot. It runs from 2020 to 2027 and has a budget of €95.5 billion (£82 billion).

Researchers based in EU member states and other “associated” countries can apply for funding on a competitive basis to support prestigious fellowships – monetary awards to support individual researchers’ careers – and research collaborations between a number of researchers across different universities and often different countries.

The EU Framework Programmes – the type of funding scheme that Horizon is the latest incarnation of – have historically been a significant source of funding for UK research. Under Horizon 2020, the funding programme which preceded Horizon Europe, the UK secured around 14% of funding, being awarded a total of nearly €7 billion (£6 billion).

EU headquarters in Brussels.
The deal is the outcome of long negotiations between the UK government and EU officials. NelzTabcharani316 / Shutterstock

How did we get here?

It’s been a tortuous journey to associate membership. There was a collective sigh of relief in December 2020 when the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which established arrangements for EU-UK cooperation post-Brexit, included a commitment on UK association.

However, its implementation was delayed because of tensions between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. With these largely resolved following the Windsor Framework agreement in February 2023, the path was theoretically cleared for joining Horizon.

However, a deal was delayed as the UK sought to negotiate terms which reflected the impact of our exclusion since 2020 on participation rates (the amount of grants received by the UK). This led to the UK government developing its “Plan B” Pioneer prospectus, a domestic alternative in the event that a deal could not be agreed with the EU over Horizon. In recent months, that had started to look like a very real prospect.

The new Horizon deal accommodated the UK’s concerns without having to re-negotiate the TCA. Subject to formal ratification by EU member states, the UK will participate in Horizon Europe as an associated country from January 1, 2024.

This means that UK researchers will have the option to participate in Horizon Europe on the same terms as academics in EU member states and will again have the opportunity to lead consortia on collaborative research projects.

Under the deal, the UK government will “pay to play”. This means that it will contribute an average of about €2.6 billion (£2.2 billion) a year to cover participation in both Horizon Europe and a space programme for observing changes on Earth called Copernicus. If the UK puts in 16% more (or above) than researchers win in grants it can claw back money – something that was a point of contention during negotiations.

One thing that’s absent is participation in Euratom, the EU’s €1.4 billion (£1.2 billion) nuclear research programme. The government has instead announced additional investment of up to £650 million to support UK nuclear fusion programmes.

Impact and mitigation of delays

The prolonged uncertainty has taken its toll, with frequent reports of UK researchers no longer being included in multi-national proposals. Their participation in projects was considered by some collaborators outside the UK to be an active deterrent to funding.

The UK government’s welcome Horizon Europe guarantee scheme has provided some mitigation during the hiatus, awarding almost £1.3 billion of funding – as of July 2023 – to successful Horizon Europe applicants in the UK. This has created space for UK researchers to remain involved in EU research endeavours while negotiations were ongoing.

This deal is good news for UK research and offers the opportunity for the country to re-establish itself as a trusted partner and leader in EU-funded research and innovation. Researchers have consistently articulated the difficulties of replicating the benefits of Horizon Europe funding at a national level.

They have stressed the importance of access to international networks over cost-benefit analyses, and the global prestige of the European Research Council – which funds frontier research as part of Horizon Europe. For researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences, Horizon funding is particularly important to supplement the UK’s comparatively modest investment in those disciplines.

Under the new deal, the UK will once again be able to influence how Horizon Europe is governed and to influence its successor programme. The priority now must be for UK research institutions to maximise UK participation rates, which have been negatively impacted by the prolonged uncertainty.

This matters not only because of the downstream, societal benefits of EU-funded research, but also with an eye on maintaining a domestic political consensus in favour of association. This is important because the association deal is only until Horizon Europe’s end in 2027. Reviving relationships with European partners will also be vital as vocal advocates for UK association.

Looking beyond the horizon

The work to develop the government’s “Plan B” need not go to waste. Informed by an assessment of research collaborations called the Smith-Reid review, Plan B set out key measures to strengthen UK research, emphasising investment in talent, infrastructure, and international and business collaborations. A coherent approach to recruiting and retaining global talent and expanding international partnerships remains relevant regardless of Horizon funding.

However, association with Horizon does not address an outstanding question about the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). This was established post-Brexit to replace EU investment in deprived regions – an enduring challenge for the UK. But shorter funding timeframes and minimal consideration of universities in the SPF, unlike its predecessor programme, will hamper efforts to tackle regional inequalities.

Horizon Europe is a crucial ingredient in the UK’s bid to become a science superpower. However, it cannot by itself confer superpower status. Our eyes should now turn to what lies beyond the horizon.

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