British scientists on Monday welcomed the prospect of the UK’s long delayed re-entry into Horizon Europe, the EU’s €96bn science programme, following the deal between the two sides over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland.
At a press conference setting out the “Windsor framework”, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, described the accord as “good news for scientists and researchers in the EU and in the UK”.
“The moment it’s implemented, I’m happy to start immediately — right now — work on an association agreement, which is the precondition to join Horizon Europe,” she said.
Britain has been excluded from EU research grants for more than two years as a result of the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. The row frustrated researchers because it eroded collaborative arrangements with colleagues based in member states and put an end to an important source of investment. Before Brexit, the UK had received a disproportionately large share of the bloc’s science funding.
Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a grassroots pressure group, said he was “thrilled” by von der Leyen’s remarks and called for talks over re-entry to start at once.
“UK and EU scientists are ready to go with collaborations and projects,” he said. “There are likely to be issues to be resolved around the UK’s financial contribution, because the programme is now two years old, but these are very solvable, especially with renewed goodwill on both sides.”
Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, Britain’s senior scientific academy, said the EU’s schemes “support outstanding international collaboration, and the sooner we join them, the better for everyone”.
“The government has stated that the UK is more committed than ever to strong research collaboration with our European partners. In light of the recent return to the Treasury of a £1.6bn underspend that was intended for association to Horizon Europe, it is reassuring that Treasury sources are now reported as saying that the money will be spent,” he added.
But Sir Jim McDonald, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, warned: “We believe it is likely that, given the delays that have already occurred, there will be significant further negotiation of the practicalities needed before association can be confirmed.”
One person closely involved in scientific relations between London and Brussels said negotiations were likely to take between six and nine months. New financial arrangements have to be worked out while both sides decide the parts of Horizon Europe in which Britain will participate and on what scale.
The top priority for UK scientists is regaining access to the European Research Council, which funds the highest quality scientific projects. They have suffered particularly from the loss of prestigious ERC grants.
The Treasury had originally allocated as much as £15bn for UK participation as a full associate member of the seven-year Horizon Europe programme that runs to 2027, but considerably less will be invested in the four years or so that remain.
In November last year, the UK and Switzerland, which is also excluded from Horizon at present, struck a deal to strengthen bilateral co-operation in research and innovation.
The UK government is next month expected to announce further funding details for international research with the EU and other countries, in what one person involved said would be “a surge in science and technology”.