What does rejoining EU’s Horizon scheme mean for UK research and innovation? | Science policy

The UK has rejoined the flagship Horizon Europe research programme, to the widespread relief of the scientific community. But what is Horizon Europe and what does it mean for UK science?

What is Horizon Europe?

With a budget of £85bn, Horizon Europe is the world’s largest transnational research and innovation programme. It is open to EU member states and countries that associate to the programme, as the UK has now done after leaving it due to Brexit. The funding supports international collaborations focused on a wide range of issues, from cancer and infectious diseases to the climate crisis, food security, artificial intelligence and robotics.

What does association mean?

Rejoining the programme means UK researchers can again apply for grants from Horizon Europe. Because the current cycle of funding runs until 2027 and will be replaced by a seven-year funding cycle and another seven-year cycle after that, it provides scientists with long-term financial support.

Universities UK talked of “the 30-year” collaboration that had been interrupted by Brexit.

What about PhD students and other recruits?

It will help secure scientific talent. While the UK was locked out of Horizon Europe, it could not take the lead on research and therefore could not recruit EU scientists to work out of British universities. Britain can now throw open the door to academics including fellows and PhD students who are vital to research teams.

It means that Britain will once again be an attractive prospect for many top young scientists who want to be sure that they can conduct world-class research wherever they settle.

Will the funding change?

No. It will resume at similar levels to the predecessor programme Horizon 2020. European grants have been a substantial boon to UK research in the past. Before Brexit the UK used to get about £2bn a year from Horizon 2020. When the UK was locked out of Horizon Europe in 2020, the UK government stepped in to replace funding. However, as one source said, it has turned into “life support” in the last two years.

UK scientists could still collaborate with European counterparts but were barred from leading programmes. Their participation withered, with the UK government issuing just £1bn for 2021 and 2022 to scientists, a quarter of receipts under Horizon 2020.

Can the UK make up lost ground?

UK researchers were among the greatest beneficiaries of previous Horizon programmes and the country sometimes landed more awards than Germany, at the forefront of European science.

After being locked out of Horizon they were “level with Belgium or the Netherlands”, said one British source.

Whether the UK can return to the top flight is uncertain, but both London and Brussels have expressed confidence that with a “turbo boost” in promotion of Horizon Europe, the UK can claw back its previous leading position in the programme within one to three years.

The EU has agreed to send a communique to all scientists to announce that they can, from Thursday, work with British scientists again. To avoid any confusion, the same language will be used in communiques sent out by the British government.

What about Copernicus?

Along with Horizon Europe, the UK has joined Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation programme. The system draws on satellites and air, ground and sea sensors to provide rapid information on natural disasters such as floods and fires and climate and the environment more broadly. Being part of Copernicus is seen as crucial for UK climate researchers and means UK aerospace firms can bid for satellite contracts with hundreds of millions of euros.

How much will it cost?

The UK is expected to pay £2.2bn a year (€2.43bn) into Horizon Europe and Corpernicus with about £2.1bn going to the science programme. One of the issues that delayed the deal was the correction mechanism that allows for rebates if the UK’s participation is financially disastrous. Under the 2020 trade deal, the UK would have been allowed to enter negotiations on compensation if its awards were 16% lower than its contributions. But under a hardening-up of the trade and cooperation agreement, “underperformance clause” compensation will kick in automatically at the 16% threshold. Both sides have indicated they are confident this clause will never be triggered.

Will Euratom involvement continue?

No. Under the new deal, the UK will leave Euratom, the EU’s nuclear research programme. That puts an end to the UK’s involvement in Iter, the multibillion-euro project to build a prototype nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France. While the science community was almost unanimous that the future lay in Horizon Europe, those working on peaceful, including medical, uses of nuclear energy said the near three-year absence from Euratom meant there was no longer a strategic value in paying into the programme. Instead, the UK will focus on its own fusion energy strategy backed by up to £650m to 2027.

What changed to clinch the Horizon deal?

Once the path was cleared in March for a deal with the new Northern Ireland trading relations, association with Horizon Europe should, as Ursula von der Leyen had promised, have been swift. Sources say the EU’s initial offer to the UK was to cancel any bill for 2021 and 2022 but they wanted the full £2bn or thereabouts to be paid for 2023 even when they were already four months into the calendar year and January 2023 funding rounds had already come and gone. The new deal gives the UK a free pass for the remainder of 2023 and no contributions kicking in until 2024, to give time to scientists to work up submissions for next year’s rounds.



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