Prepare for a groundbreaking development in the world of science and research! The United Kingdom is inching closer to rejoining the prestigious £85 billion Horizon Europe science research programme after being excluded since 2020 due to the contentious issue of Northern Ireland's Brexit trading arrangements.
A Contentious Debate: Was the Row Justified?
Debate surrounds the significance of the row itself. Scientists had no involvement in the Northern Ireland protocol, and the matter held little political weight. The primary losers in this unfortunate scenario are arguably the scientists and researchers in the sector.
What Lies Ahead?
The UK is reportedly on the brink of reaching a deal, according to sources, with speculations of a potential announcement during the Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next Tuesday.
The UK’s Stance and Ongoing Discussions
Downing Street has clarified that no agreement has been reached between the UK and the EU regarding the Horizon Europe research programme. Rishi Sunak's spokesperson highlighted the prime minister's commitment to securing “value for money for taxpayers” if the UK decides to rejoin the scheme. The discussions between the UK and the EU remain constructive and ongoing.
The UK government is concerned about the financial aspect of the arrangement. There are worries that the weakened confidence in the science sector may result in the UK's financial contributions not being matched by awards, leaving the country at a net loss.
Perspectives from the Scientific Community
Scientists agree that confidence has suffered a blow, but they believe that applications to the fund will rebound, especially with the UK once again taking a leading role in the programme. Renowned physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox expressed that rejoining the programme would be “a huge relief.”
The Value of the Program: Quantifying the Loss
EU data reveals a significant decline in funding received by the UK. In 2019, the UK received €959.3 million in 1,364 grants, compared to €22.18 million in 192 grants so far in 2023.
The funding provided by Horizon 2020 for scientific research and innovation was unparalleled in scale. With €100 billion (£85 billion) allocated to projects from 2021 to 2027, the program aimed to address pressing global challenges such as climate change, ocean conservation, combating diseases, and enhancing food and energy security.
Historically, the UK has benefited more from EU research programs than it has contributed. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed nearly £4.3 billion towards EU research projects and received grants totaling nearly £7 billion. This excess of £2.7 billion translated to over £300 million in research funding annually.
A significant report in 2016 revealed that pre-Brexit, EU grants played a crucial role in supporting scientific and medical research in the UK, particularly in fields such as cancer research, computing, nanotechnology, and engineering. European grants accounted for over 40% of public funding for cancer research and 62% for nanotechnology research, demonstrating their substantial impact. From 2006 to 2015, only 7% of funds from the EU and the European Research Council were allocated to non-member states.
Importance of International Collaboration
Although the UK Research and Innovation government fund guarantees support for scientists who would have previously relied on Horizon grants, the scientific community argues that it does not replace the benefits of international collaboration and the sharing of findings, which are vital for accelerating advancements.
The Complex Timeline of Events
Over the past three years, the situation has been characterized by a prolonged political stalemate rather than an official dispute. The UK's decision to unilaterally abandon certain trading arrangements relating to Northern Ireland, which were later removed under the Windsor framework, resulted in a protracted political standoff.
Associate membership, initially expected to be ratified in spring or early summer of 2021, was never officially approved by the EU. Instead, it was informally delayed as a retaliatory measure due to the UK's failure to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU never explicitly announced the withholding of membership. It was not until May 2022 that a senior EU diplomat admitted that Horizon Europe “might be the victim of a political impasse.”
Talks were reopened only in March 2023 when Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen agreed on the new Windsor framework for Northern Ireland.
The Fate of Specific Research Areas
Concerns have been raised about the UK seeking access to Euratom, a parallel funding scheme for nuclear research and innovation. There are doubts due to ministers' reservations about the value for money offered by Horizon. The Euratom program operates under the same rules as Horizon Europe and aims to allocate €1.4 billion (£1.2 billion) from 2021 to 2025. These funds support projects related to nuclear fission, safety, radiation protection, and, notably, nuclear fusion, a potentially transformative source of green energy.
The eagerly awaited decision regarding the UK's reentry into Horizon Europe holds immense significance for the future of British science and research. Stay tuned for further updates on this captivating journey!