Scientists celebrate as UK rejoins Horizon Europe research programme


The governments of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Union President Ursula von der Leyen have reached a long-negotiated agreement on science funding.Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

A late-night deal means UK scientists can once more apply for money from the European Union’s flagship €95-billion (US$101-billion) Horizon Europe research-funding programme. The announcement of the long-negotiated agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU has delighted UK researchers, who have been locked out of the scheme following disagreements over a portion of the Brexit deal called the Northern Ireland protocol. But the news is also a bitter reminder of what the UK research community has lost while politicians have for two years warred in what has at times seemed like a doomed negotiation.

Under the terms of the deal, the United Kingdom will pay in €2.6 billion per year to be an ‘associate’ member of Horizon Europe for the rest of the scheme’s current term, set to end in 2027. The agreement also introduces an threshold, over or under which the UK government will pay an excess — or be reimbursed — if its researchers win more or less than 8% funding over two years.

“It’s objectively brilliant news,” Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, wrote in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

“This news will be acclaimed with a rare level of consensus across the scientific community here and on mainland Europe. All have been frustrated by the unconscionable delay in reaching agreement,” said Martin Rees, an emeritus astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, in a statement to the UK Science Media Centre (SMC).

Others also expressed frustration over the hiatus for UK researchers while negotiations continued. “Going back in is good. But irreversible damage has been done,” John Hardy, a neuroscientist at University College London, said in an SMC statement.

“Leaving the programme has caused some damage to UK science. We lost funding, we lost collaborations, and we also lost key contact with EU universities and research groups,” says Azeem Majeed, a primary care and public health researcher at Imperial College London. It will take time to rebuild collaborations with EU partners, he adds.

Robert-Jan Smits, who was director-general of research at the European Commission from 2010 to 2018 says that the agreement was “long overdue”. “We should not have let politics get in the way.”

Associate membership

The deal also sees the United Kingdom rejoin the Earth-observation programme Copernicus, but it will not participate in Europe’s nuclear-fusion project Euratom, preferring to steer its own path.

“It’s fantastic news,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester. But he adds that it was “about time” the two parties reached an agreement.

Since the UK public voted to leave the European Union in 2016, scientists in the country have faced uncertainty around the status of grants from the Horizon budget. When the Brexit deal was finalized in 2020, it looked like Horizon funding was still accessible to UK-based scientists. But a subsequent dispute over trading in Northern Ireland halted that part of the agreement. That issue was finally resolved in February with the adoption of a political declaration called Windsor Framework, but the subsequent agreement between the two sides took months longer to ink.

The hold-up has been painful for UK scientists, who have regularly voiced their concerns about the long-term damage caused to British science and collaboration. “We’ve had to wait even longer than we need to,” Flanagan says. The delay in reaching an agreement since February could have been down to the UK government wanting to negotiate a discount, he suggests, “on the grounds that the delay caused by the Northern Ireland protocol itself has damaged the UK capacity to gain funds from Horizon”.

“It dragged out far too long,” says Helga Nowotny, one of the founders and past president of the European Research Council (ERC). “Science had been taken hostage in this long, drawn out and very painful Brexit process,” she says. She expects cooperation will now resume quickly. UK scientists, including those who won prestigious ERC grants near the beginning of Horizon Europe’s term, were faced with the option of giving up their funding or moving to a EU institution so they could participate in the scheme.

The reassociation will help to make the United Kingdom attractive to researchers worldwide, say scientists. “It isn’t just the money. It’s also that funding is prestigious, it makes the UK very attractive to researchers, and it funds the kind of research that is particularly great for UK science,” says Sarion Bowers, head of policy at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a genomic research center in Hinxton, UK.

8% threshold

The associate member agreement limits the amount of funding UK researchers can receive beyond what the government has paid into the scheme. If the amount of grant funding UK researchers win over two consecutive years is more than 8% higher than the nation’s contribution, the government must pay back the excess. Conversely, if UK scientists win less grant money than the country has paid into Horizon Europe, the government will be reimbursed. This threshold does not apply to EU member states.

Smits says that he regrets that the UK has not rejoined Euratom. “I was always against part association,” he says. “You don’t go cherry picking”. But he adds that he would rather the United Kingdom be partly involved with EU science programmes, as members of Horizon and Copernicus, than not at all.

Now that the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union, it will not take part in the discussions on the funding programme’s priorities and grant calls, says Majeed. But UK scientists will still have the opportunity to apply for grants once they are announced.

The Russell Group of leading UK research universities is now priming members to prepare their researchers to apply for EU funding. This will include running workshops and upskilling events, as well as sharing information about upcoming grant calls, says Stephanie Smith, the group’s deputy director of policy. “We’re incredibly grateful today that the deal’s gone through. It was never guaranteed,” she says.

“Both European and UK science is so much better when it’s done together, it’s stronger, we produce better outputs,” says Bowers. “And ultimately we produce better benefits for European and UK citizens.”


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