Talks to get the UK to join the EU’s £83billion Horizon Europe research funding programme could begin in just “weeks”, it has been reported. This comes just days after Rishi Sunak announced his new deal with the European Union to reform post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. The news may come as a relief to the scientific community, many of whom have expressed concern that the UK’s “Plan B” alternative to the EU funding programme would struggle to match the scale and efficiency of the well-established Horizon scheme.
Launched in 2021 as the successor to the Horizon 2020 programme, Horizon Europe is a seven-year initiative to provide funding for scientific research and innovation.
The programme, the biggest of its kind in the world, is intended to boost European science spending by 50 percent come 2027 and is open to applications from both within the EU and associated countries.
Back in late 2020, alongside signing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK and the EU reached an agreement in principle that the UK would associate with Horizon Europe after Brexit.
Yet political hurdles have meant that this arrangement has become something of a sticking point between the UK and our neighbours across the English Channel.
According to BBC News Brussels Correspondent Jessica Parker on Twitter: “UK officials say that, while they’ll still work on ’Plan B’, proper talks about access could begin within weeks in Brussels.
“But — because Britain has already missed out on part of the seven-year programme — it looks like there’ll be some haggling.”
A significant topic for discussion, Ms Parker notes, will be money. As she puts it, “What will the UK’s financial contribution be?”
At present, the EU has not made any proposals to address the financial terms of the UK’s association with Horizon Europe. Having “missed out” on two years of the programme, the UK is accordingly looking to pay a reduced fee.
Ms Parker added: “There also appear to be some other legal and practical concerns, including Britain’s ability to shape the scheme, having been out in the cold since Brexit.”
READ MORE: EU snub ‘costs UK science £1.6bn’ as UK slashes ‘Plan B’ funds – claim
Earlier this week, UK Science and Technology Committee Chair Greg Clark urged both the Government and their EU counterparts to accelerate negotiations around Horizon Europe.
He referenced a letter composed earlier this month by Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donavan, which he noted did not confirm whether the £1.6billion previously allocated towards association with Horizon Europe — but since returned to the Treasury — would be re-allocated to the Department.
Mr Clark said: “The Secretary of State is right to be concerned that we are already more than 2 years into a 7-year Horizon Europe programme.
“I would urge the European Commission and the Government to commence and conclude these discussions without delay, which must address what value remains accessible to the UK in the remaining years of the programme.
“It is frustrating that the Commission’s intransigence in blocking the UK’s association has led to 1.6 billion pounds in subscription funding set aside for Horizon this year having to be returned to the Treasury.
“Some of these funds risk no longer being available for UK scientific research, underlining the need to accelerate the negotiation.”
According to Ms Parker, there have been rumours recently that Rishi Sunak was wary of rejoining the Horizon funding programmes — a suggestion that, regardless of its veracity, has had real-world implications.
She explained: “There were reports the Prime Minister was sceptical about the scheme’s value (although some close to Sunak say those claims were a stretch).
“Nevertheless, it sparked dismay among university and business leaders who say the stalemate’s been damaging for research and innovation.”
In fact, the Russell Group — which represents 24 of the UK’s most research-intensive universities, including both Oxford and Cambridge — have previously warned that not being able to take part in Horizon Europe would impede goals to make Britain a “science superpower”.
And campaigners from “Stick to Science”, for example, have argued that Horizon Europe “has a world-renowned reputation for excellence and it cannot be quickly and cheaply replaced elsewhere without having to compromise on ambition, efficiency and scale.”