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Research Funding

UK finally joins Horizon Europe research program

A return to more pragmatic foreign relations means that British and European scientists can collaborate on pre-Brexit terms

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
September 8, 2023


Two people shaking hands at podiums during a press conference.
Credit: Press Association via AP Images
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shakes hands with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a press conference in March about the Windsor Framework.

After several false starts and more than two and a half years of delays, the European Union and UK governments signed a deal on Sept. 7 to include UK scientists in the EU’s $100 billion flagship research funding program, known as Horizon Europe.

UK researchers are now eligible for EU grants, and the UK’s budgetary contributions will provide a significant boost to Horizon Europe. Scientists on both sides, meanwhile, will benefit from easier collaboration.

“This is really important for the UK and EU economies and their place in the world,” says Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust, a nonprofit that funds and supports research.

Before the UK left the EU in 2020, a break known as Brexit, UK inclusion in the program was a given, and officials on both sides expected to negotiate a speedy continuation of the country’s membership post-Brexit. That was not to be, however, after the question of the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe became embroiled in larger political disagreements between London and Brussels, especially regarding how to manage the border between Northern Ireland—which is part of the UK—and the Republic of Ireland—which is in the EU.

As a stopgap, scientists in the UK were told to keep applying for Horizon Europe grants. If they were successful, UK funding agencies would step in to match the funding. “More than £1 billion [$1.25 billion] was distributed in that way, and it kept the momentum going, but it was never meant to be a long-term solution,” Smith says.

Rishi Sunak became UK prime minister in October 2022, and he replaced the hawkish stance favored by previous prime ministers with a more pragmatic approach. This political reset culminated in the March 2023 Windsor Framework, in which the EU and UK reached a deal to allow Northern Ireland access to both the UK and EU economies. “This really helped,” Smith says. “It simply wasn’t possible to discuss Horizon with the EU until the Windsor Framework was agreed.”

It has taken six more months to agree on terms for the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe because of British concerns that the government could end up paying a lot more into the system than is awarded to researchers in the country.

The new agreement ensures that the UK won’t pay for the time it was excluded from the program. The UK has also been granted a rebate mechanism if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the program.

Horizon Europe ends in 2027, when the EU is expected to commence a new funding program. The new deal between the UK and EU makes a smooth transition in 2027 realistic. “Norway and Iceland, who are not members of the EU, have simply rolled forward their previous agreements in the past,” Smith says. “I think this latest agreement lays a similarly solid foundation for future framework programs.”


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