Still no UK-EU agreement on Horizon Europe 16 Aug 2023
Roadblocks from the EU, and the UK government’s determination to get a ‘fair settlement’ on associate membership, are harming international collaborative research programmes and, ultimately, patients’ access to innovative treatments and devices
It is Summer 2023 and diplomatic wrangling continues to challenge the UK’s return to the lucrative Horizon Europe scientific research programme, which is worth £85bn. The UK life sciences sector had hoped that a deal would be agreed by this July. However, no announcements have been made and the fact that the government has extended its Horizon Europe Guarantee support scheme to the end of September 2023 suggests no deal is imminent.
Before its exit from the European Union (EU), the UK was a major beneficiary of the Horizon programme. However, uncertainty over its membership, and the fact that it cannot lead cross-EU research while it remains outside the scheme, have hampered UK scientific research plans in recent years.
The government reports that its guarantee scheme to support UK applicants who are successful in the programme’s calls began in November 2021 and has awarded over £1bn, in the form of 2,000 grants, up to the end of April 2023.
Speaking when the extension was announced, the government’s Science and Technology Secretary Chloe Smith stated, “Our priority is to ensure the UK’s R&D sector gets the maximum level of support to allow them to continue their ground-breaking research and collaboration with international partners, and the extension of the guarantee provides certainty for researchers while negotiations continue.”
One earlier stumbling block to an agreement was the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, which had led the EU to prevent the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. However, though a way forward on that was agreed in the form of the Windsor Framework in February 2023, talks have faltered over the amount the UK should pay towards the Horizon Europe programme.
The government wants the payment to ‘reflect the lasting impact of two years of EU delays to the UK’s association’. The European Commission (EC) has agreed that the UK will not have to pay for 2021 and 2022, but the government argues that UK scientists will be at a disadvantage when they rejoin European research consortia, negatively impacting them in the remaining years of Horizon Europe up to 2027.
Negotiations have been further hindered by the government’s request to exit the atomic research organisation Euratom, which is a complementary funding programme to Horizon Europe. This has resulted in the EU stating that either the UK can leave Euratom or receive a rebate for late association with Horizon Europe, but not both, according to sources quoted by Research Professional News.
The life sciences sector has consistently stressed the importance of the UK being a part of Horizon Europe, urging ministers to agree a deal swiftly.
The Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry and Institute of Physics wrote a joint letter to the Chancellor and Prime Minister to emphasise the point, noting: “As learned scientific societies, together, we represent over 100,000 scientists in many sectors and from many backgrounds in the UK and across the world. Our communities consistently highlight the irreplaceable benefits of collaborating on EU research programmes, including their ability to provide a route to international collaboration, networks, sharing data and world-class infrastructure on a global scale.
“We believe that access to EU research programmes means we attract and retain talented researchers and innovators in the UK, as well as bringing significant financial benefits to research and companies. Equally, playing an active part in Europe-wide programmes is proven to create supportive international ecosystems for potentially high-growth, transformative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to thrive.
“UK association with Horizon Europe is crucial for the continued growth and success of UK science, and the economic and societal benefits this brings. We are urging the government to take necessary action to ensure this association.”
According to The Guardian, data from the EC shows a large drop in awards to British science programmes since 2019. In that year, €959.3m (£828.8m) went to the UK in 1,364 grants, compared with €22.18m in 192 grants in 2023 to date.
PharmaMedic’s Managing Director, Dr Malcolm Barratt-Johnson, commented that the failure of the two sides to reach agreement “is placing the UK at a huge disadvantage compared to Europe and resulting in a significant number of cutting-edge research areas now being led by the EU without the UK’s involvement”.
While clearly the government wants a deal to be struck with the EU, it also stresses that any agreement must be balanced. Science minister George Freeman said in a June interview with parliament’s internal newsletter, The House, “We have made very clear that being in Horizon was always our policy. It never changed. It was the EU that was keeping us out, and the Prime Minister has instructed the team to negotiate. We just need a fair settlement – a fair reassociation price. So, I would like to think, given that everyone across Europe that I have spoken to… has said, ‘we really want the Brits back in Horizon’, it would be pretty extraordinary if the EU can’t negotiate a sensible deal.”
However, as the uncertainty drags on, international research is paying the price.
The government launched its alternative £14.6bn research plan to support science, research, technology and innovation, called Pioneer, in April 2023. This will be activated if association to Horizon Europe ultimately fails.
However, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s leading research universities, summed up the view of the research community in the UK on Pioneer as compared to the Horizon programme: “We have always been clear that it will be a challenge to replicate the full benefits of the world’s largest collaborative research programme, with ready-made routes for talent flow, facilities access and collaboration with multiple countries.”
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