Over the past 6 months the UK Government has been involved in negotiations with the European Union to broker a deal over participation in Europe’s Horizon Programme.
When the UK left the EU, amongst the many things that were lost was being a member of the great scientific and research opportunities in Horizon Europe.
This deal will mean the UK will become a ‘fully associated member’ and that researchers can apply for grants and bid to take part in projects under the Horizon programme for the remaining life of the programme to 2027.
This is not a return to what we had when we were part of the world’s largest free trade market, the EU. The deal has been a long time coming and was only able to be resolved after the Windsor Agreement . Changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol with the Windsor Agreement meant that a form of dual regulation was put in place for the region which is the only place in the UK which shares a border with an EU country (allowing it ‘privileged access to the whole of the EU market’) and which has the protection of the internationally recognised Good Friday Agreement.
Under this deal the UK will also associate to Copernicus, the European Earth Observation programme. This will provide the UK’s earth observation sector with access to unique data – valuable to helping with early flood and fire warnings, for example – and with the ability to bid for contracts, which they haven’t been able to access for three years.
In line with the preferences of the UK fusion sector, the UK has decided to pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy instead of associating to the EU’s Euratom programme. This will involve close international collaboration, including with European partners, and a new, cutting-edge alternative programme, backed by up to £650m to 2027.
The UK will be required to contribute financially to the EU budget and is subject to all the safeguards of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Overall, it is estimated that the UK will contribute almost €2.6 billion per year on average for its participation to both Horizon Europe and the Copernicus component of the Space programme.
The EU will assess UK participants’ access to strategic parts of the Horizon Europe programme on equal terms with other associated countries.
Researchers and scientific institutions have welcomed the deal to access funding for projects which they have missed out on for over 3 years.
UK Prime Minister Rishi 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.”
Several countries have created mechanisms to co-fund their participants in Horizon 2020 actions selected for EU funding as associate members.
All kinds of research in the UK benefitted when a member of the EU’s Horizon programme. One of those was cancer research.
Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said:
“Horizon Europe association is overwhelmingly in the best interests of cancer patients and scientists, and it is great news for cancer research that agreement has finally been reached between the UK and EU.
“There will be relief throughout the research community that the uncertainty of the last two and a half years has come to an end. Nearly three quarters of respondents to our survey of cancer researchers cited funding from the EU as important for their work, showing how crucial Horizon Europe association is for the future of cancer research.
“We hope that this deal paves the way for the UK’s ongoing participation in future European research programmes.
“It is essential that the European Commission, the UK Government and UK research funders work with urgency to rebuild the strong position the UK occupied in the Horizon programme, and get funds and global collaboration flowing again into our research institutions.”
The UKs Council for Science and technology, wrote to PM Rishi Sunak in June 2023 to offer further advice on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. They are delighted with this outcome.
Dame Professor Angela McLean, Government Chief Scientific Adviser and government co-chair said:
“This is great news for UK science and technology. International collaboration is a vital part of a thriving science ecosystem and association with the Horizon programme bolsters our plans to secure our status as a science and technology superpower.”
There will also be the costs of the UK pursuing its own fusion programme. The UK decided not to pursue its association to Euratom and Fusion4Energy / ITER. This decision was guided by the UK’s assessment that its industry’s long absence from Euratom and F4E/ITER programmes cannot be reversed.
Professor Sir Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), has welcomed the ending of the years of uncertainty over funding. He said:
“The government’s commitment to an ambitious alternative R&D programme will be hugely important in sustaining the UK’s position as a leader in fusion R&D as well as developing an industrial capability to deliver future fusion power plants.
“We welcome the ambition to retain, and even enhance, our international collaborative relationships through this substantial package of alternative R&D. We look forward to working with our industrial partners to deliver on the UK’s fusion strategy as well as developing even stronger collaboration with our international partners.”
Horizon Europe is the world’s biggest civil research and innovation programme with a budget of €95.5 billion from the EU alone, coupled with the contributions of associated countries. Copernicus is the EU’s satellite system for observing and monitoring the Earth. The UK will have access to all Copernicus products and services.
It is estimated that the UK will contribute almost €2.6 billion per year on average for its participation to both Horizon Europe and the Copernicus component of the Space programme. Association to both programmes will become effective as of 1 January 2024.