The Brexit cliffhanger has ended with a favorable outcome for U.K. researchers. Just 1 week before a 1 January deadline, negotiators struck a long-term agreement on trade and cooperation that will ease the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The deal also includes a hoped-for provision for science. In exchange for a contribution to the EU budget, the United Kingdom will join the forthcoming Horizon Europe research program, which will spend €85 billion over the next 7 years.
“I am unbelievably relieved,” says Vivienne Stern, director of advocacy group Universities UK International (UUKI). She says failure to reach agreement on Horizon Europe “would’ve been a tragedy” for U.K. researchers, and that the outcome is “a relief to the European and international research community.”
Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of anti-Brexit campaign group Scientists for EU and a visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is also pleased about access to Horizon Europe. But he laments the loss of U.K. influence over the program and how the money is spent, because those decisions will only be made by EU countries.
U.K.-based researchers were among the largest beneficiaries of Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe’s predecessor. They hoped that after Brexit, the country would pay for “associate” status, which allows researchers in non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Israel to apply for and receive EU funding. But there were fears that associate membership might be too costly.
Association fees are calculated on the basis of gross domestic product, but after Swiss and Israeli researchers won more from Horizon 2020 than their governments paid in, the European Union revised rules for Horizon Europe so that associate nations would pay more if they won ample funding.
The Brexit deal contains similar rules to ensure the United Kingdom won’t underpay, but that is unlikely. UUKI previously put the 7-year cost of joining at more than €15 billion, more than double the €7 billion or so the country got from Horizon 2020. “The EU knew that they could ask for quite a lot from us because we have so grown into that program,” Galsworthy says.
The United Kingdom will also pay to participate in nuclear research under the Euratom treaty, despite having withdrawn from the treaty itself. It will take part in ITER, an international fusion energy project, via an EU-run partnership that also includes Switzerland. And it will remain involved with the Copernicus Earth observation satellite program and the European Space Surveillance and Tracking system, which monitors threats from space debris.
However, the country will not get access to special military-only signals from the Galileo satellite navigation system—Europe’s answer to GPS. The United Kingdom has contributed about €1.4 billion to Galileo’s creation, more than 10% of its budget. Losing access to parts of Galileo is “a massive loss,” given the U.K. investments, Galsworthy says.
One part of Horizon Europe will also be off-limits to U.K. researchers: the European Innovation Council Accelerator, a new equity fund that invests in tech startups (Science, 10 April 2020, p. 120). “There is obviously a nervousness in the EU about the U.K.’s innovation performance, and Horizon effectively helping the U.K. to compete as a near neighbor but competitor economy,” Stern says.
After the United Kingdom announced its intention to leave the European Union in 2017, participation by U.K. researchers in Horizon projects fell sharply. Stern says she heard stories of U.K. researchers being asked to leave consortia for fear their presence might affect the success of Horizon 2020 bids. Now, Galsworthy says, “We need to try and gather back our position on Horizon Europe.” But, he adds, some uncertainty remains, because the European Union could unilaterally “blow up” the entire deal if it believes the United Kingdom has reneged on any particular part of it.
The U.K.-EU deal took effect provisionally on 1 January. The U.K. Parliament has already ratified it, and both the European Council and European Parliament must give their approval by the end of February.