Last Thursday (7th September), the UK secured its place in Europe’s flagship research collaboration programme, Horizon Europe. The announcement of the agreement in principle comes almost three years after the UK’s membership of the programme was agreed in December 2020 under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
With a budget of €95.5 billion between 2021 and 2027, Horizon Europe is the largest transnational research programme in the world. Along with the access to this funding for UK researchers and organisations, membership of Horizon Europe also offers the ability for UK scientists to collaborate with a network of talented scientists and innovators across Europe.
This announcement is welcome news for the UK research community and has been long in the making (with our first article on the UK accessing this scheme dating back more than 5 years).1
Despite reaching agreement on the UK’s membership in 2020, the process has been delayed by ongoing political wranglings between the UK and the EU. The most recent delays appear to have been linked to the financial terms of membership. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has ostensibly been focussed on ensuring value for money for the UK and mitigating any loss caused by the UK’s late entry to the scheme. According to press releases, the last six months of negotiation between Rishi and EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen have finally borne fruit, with this deal addressing both points. The UK Government press release notes that the new deal removes any payments from the UK in respect of the previous two years of the scheme, including the rest of 2023, and it provides a clawback should UK scientists receive significantly less funding than the UK puts into the programme.
In addition to Horizon Europe, the UK will now associate to Copernicus, the European Earth Observation programme (a component of the space programme) that will provide access to valuable Earth observation data. This will help with, for example, early warning systems for fires and floods. The UK has, however, rejected the chance to join the EU’s nuclear energy research scheme, Euratom. Rishi Sunak has stated that there will be viable domestic alternatives for the UK announced in the coming weeks.
The European Commission (the ‘EC’) estimates that the UK will contribute almost €2.6 billion per year on average. In return, the UK’s association to Horizon Europe means researchers and organisations in the UK will now be able to participate in the scheme to the same extent as their EU counterparts. This will include the ability to lead consortia from any 2024 work programmes (including those opening this year). The EC will continue to administer transitional arrangements in respect of calls from the 2023 work programmes, and the UK will continue to provide funding under the UK Guarantee, so existing partnerships will be remain secured. With New Zealand having joined the scheme in July, and both Korea and Canada in formal negotiations to associate, Horizon Europe looks set to offer even more opportunity for collaboration across the globe.
As we have reported previously, the UK has historically been a large beneficiary of the framework research funding programmes created by the EU to support scientific research in Europe.2 Notably, under the predecessor to Horizon Europe (Horizon 2020), UK based researchers were the second highest recipients of funding, having secured 12.1% of the available funds (more than €7 billion), and also received the highest number of grants awarded to any country. In time, hopefully, we will see the UK find its place as one of the leading beneficiaries of Horizon Europe.
The next step in this process is for the UK’s association to Horizon Europe be finalised legally. The current agreement in principle is regarded as a ‘political agreement’ only, but its content will underpin the legal instruments necessary to formalise the association. The UK Government and the EC will work together to prepare and validate these legal instruments, ahead of approval by the Council of the European Union. The approved instruments can then be adopted by the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes ahead of signing by the relevant signatories. The association agreement is expected to be signed in the coming months. In the case of New Zealand, signing took place around 6 months after the negotiations concluded. Stay tuned to hear how the signing process unfolds; the coming months look poised to be an exciting time for UK science.