The UK’s break with Horizon Europe is totally unnecessary

EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has suggested the UK consider alternatives to Horizon Europe that could allow UK-EU collaborations to continue.Credit: Thierry Monasse/Anadolu Agency/Getty

When Britain left the European Union at the end of January 2020, researchers were assured that this did not mean leaving the EU’s research programme, Horizon Europe. Under the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, the country would continue to contribute to the €95.5 billion (US$100.6 billion) fund and researchers would continue to have access to grants (including including prestigious grants from the European Research Council (ERC), carry out projects and participate in initiatives such as the installation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France. Scientists breathed heavy sighs of relief. Although most had strongly opposed Brexit, access meant that longstanding research partnerships would continue and new ones could be forged.

But a lot has changed since then. Relations between British and European policy makers fell apart, with researchers caught in the trap. It is now expected that those who have won ERC scholarships and other scholarships will lose them. The main reason is the British government’s decision to break some terms of the separation agreement it carefully negotiated with the EU.

The British government has presented a bill to its parliament to amend the trade agreements between Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom) and the independent Republic of Ireland (which is a member of the EU). It does this unilaterally, instead of using the formal dispute resolution system. The action triggered EU legal action against the UK for breaching international law.

While all of this is happening, the EU has halted research cooperation. UK recipients of EU grants have been told they will need to visit an EU institution if they want guaranteed access to funds. Some prepare for it reluctantly. EU legal action is likely to make any future UK access to Horizon Europe much more difficult. The legal case will probably take several years to follow its course, and Horizon Europe is limited in time: it ends in 2027.

Research leaders in the EU and UK have led a loud and high-profile campaign called “Stick to Science”, urging politicians to keep politics out of science. But, barring a last-minute change of heart, a scientific relationship that has spanned around five decades looks likely to come to an end. If and when that happens, it could be the biggest setback ever for European scientific cooperation. Over the years, researchers from continental Europe have enriched British science to no end – and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, relations between the UK government and the country’s scientists are at one of their lowest points in recent memory. Researchers are exasperated by the uncertainty and lack of detailed communication about what comes next, and worry about inconsistencies in the government’s thinking on funding.

UK science minister George Freeman, an entrepreneur and biotech intellectual, is planning a global relief fund for UK researchers which he informally calls Plan B. Freeman told a parliamentary inquiry last week that the government would publish a “prospectus” for this fund before MPs go on summer vacation on July 21. He added that the fund will include international scholarships for UK researchers and more funding for high-risk, high-reward science similar to that funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

A problem for the Minister is that the UK Treasury – the department providing the funding – needs to know which of the two options to fund. If the country does not join Horizon Europe and Plan B is not ready in time, there are fears that part of the allocated funds will be diverted to other spending priorities.

Another reason the scientific community has little faith in Britain’s funding ambitions is the government’s decision to abruptly end one of the country’s existing (and popular) global funding schemes, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), as well as the decision not to renew a second global fund, the Newton Fund, when it ended in 2021. The unexpected cancellation of the GCRF, in particular, created chaos for existing projects .

It is imperative that the UK government consult some of the country’s experts on research funding on the design of a replacement global fund. The consultation is also expected to include organizations such as the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which were among those responsible for the management and disbursement of the GCRF and the Newton Fund.

These funds have supported partnerships between UK researchers and international counterparts, many in low- and middle-income countries, particularly on projects aimed at achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The funds have transformed research at many universities, both in the UK and around the world. In 2019, the GCRF supported nearly 5,000 researchers working on more than 800 projects in some 120 countries. An assessment of the lessons learned from these experiences could be of great value to the designers of the new global fund.

The history of UK scientific decoupling from the EU should serve as a warning to researchers around the world that international scientific cooperation cannot be taken for granted. Researchers have come to expect those elected to lead to understand that science and knowledge thrive on international partnerships and exchanges – and that in times of political tension, disagreement or conflict, research , knowledge and scholarship should continue despite these differences. But the way the UK’s break with the EU has trickled down to science shows that’s not necessarily the case.

As the world enters a much more uncertain phase following the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we urge all researchers to redouble their efforts to maintain and strengthen collaborations. No action is too small. Added together, acts of solidarity keep collaborations alive in the absence of formal ties, just as they have done in previous periods of tension and conflict.

Mary I. Bruner