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UK to rejoin EU’s Horizon science programme

By Sam Blewett and Dominic McGrath, PA Political Staff

The UK is to return to the European Union’s £85 billion Horizon research programme in a breakthrough welcomed by scientists who were frozen out of the scheme in a row over post-Brexit rules.

Researchers based in the UK can from Thursday apply for grants to take part in the collaboration programme after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak secured what he called “the right deal for British taxpayers”.

According to the EU’s estimate, Britain will contribute around £2.2 billion (almost 2.6 billion euros) per year to participate in both Horizon and the Copernicus space programme from January 1 when its association membership with the projects begins.

But it will not take part in the bloc’s nuclear technology scheme, Euratom.

Mr Sunak said: “We heard loud and clear from our fusion industry, in particular, that they didn’t want to associate to Horizon.”

“So part of our research community said that there are bits of this that we would rather not be a part of, because we think we’re better off having a bespoke UK scheme.”

With costs having been a key barrier for negotiators to overcome, the UK will not have to pay into the scheme for the two years it was frozen out in a tit-for-tat retaliation in a dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland in 2020.

The Government said the deal includes a “clawback” mechanism, which means the UK will be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.

Mr Sunak said he had listened to scientists and researchers, whom he said the Government was backing “wholeheartedly”.

“I listened to the science and research community here. They said that association to Horizon was a priority. That’s what I’ve delivered.”

“And we’ve delivered a specific deal for the UK that works in the best interest of our researchers and scientists but also in the best interest of British taxpayers.”

Mr Sunak played down suggestions that the deal could pave the way for closer co-operation with the EU, instead telling broadcasters that “when it comes to the research world, collaboration is really important”.

Speaking during a visit to the University of Warwick, Mr Sunak said the deal would transform the lives of the public “for the better” and create jobs as companies work to improve manufacturing processes.

Explaining some of the more practical implications the public could benefit from, he added: “Because of their materials and research on how they are melding together different polymers and things, they are improving how hip joints work.”

“So it’s a very routine and common operation in the UK for people to have hip replacements – because of the research happening here, we are improving the comfort level of people’s new hip joints and the durability of them so they don’t have to go back in the hospital and get them repaired and fixed.”

“One of the great advances from Horizon research has been in cancer and improving our cancer detection rates, so keeping people alive.”

“And we’re all passionate about tackling climate change.”

“There is no way to get that to zero without our scientists helping discover the new technologies that will help us get that.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who signed off on the deal with the Prime Minister in a call on Wednesday, said: “The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point.”

“We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”

The move was immediately welcomed by scientists after years of warnings that UK researchers have been missing out on collaboration with colleagues in the EU.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said it is “fantastic news”.

“Science has so much to offer in terms of tackling global challenges and improving lives. Today the Government and the EU have given that a big boost,” he said.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said he is “thrilled to finally see that partnerships with EU scientists can continue”.

“This is an essential step in rebuilding and strengthening our global scientific standing,” he added.

“Thank you to the huge number of researchers in the UK and across Europe who, over many years, didn’t give up on stressing the importance of international collaboration for science.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said it will be “overwhelmingly in the best interests of cancer patients and scientists”.

Universities UK president Professor Dame Sally Mapstone said: “Allowing our scientists to work together, irrespective of borders, is in all of our interests.

“Our universities will now do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation and is able to secure genuine value, delivering the wealth of research opportunities available.”

Science Secretary Michelle Donelan said the Horizon programme is “unrivalled in its scope”, adding that it is a “fantastic day” for British science and technology.

Labour called the deal a “relief” but warned it was “too late” for many researchers.

Shadow secretary of state for science, innovation and technology Peter Kyle said: “Today’s announcement is a relief after years of Conservative prime ministers putting party above country.”

“However, this announcement is too late for many researchers, businesses and academics who have already lost out in billions of funding and taken their jobs and expertise elsewhere.”

“Our world-leading research base deserves a government that matches their ambition.”

“Labour’s industrial strategy will support our world-leading sectors like life sciences and will unlock the potential of our scientific community.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “I think there is a sense that we have lost two years, that this should have happened two years ago and that is a big loss.”

He added that the decision not to join Euratom was a “gap” that Labour would look at.

What is Horizon?

By Dominic McGrath and Nina Massey, PA


The scheme is a collaboration involving Europe’s leading research institutes and technology companies.


The latest iteration of the programme was initially launched in 2021 with a budget of 95.5 billion euro (£81.8 billion).


The scheme, which runs until 2027, is open to all types of organisations across Europe and the world.


Given the scale of the funding, it is a hugely important source of support for some of the world’s most important research projects.


What is the link with Brexit?


Before the UK left the EU, the country was a member of Horizon. Ongoing membership or some form of future relationship was a key ask from scientists and universities during the protracted negotiations that followed the 2016 referendum.


Membership of the programme was eventually negotiated in the Brexit withdrawal agreement but the UK was frozen out of the scheme amid disputes between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol.


Why is there a deal now?


Tensions between the UK and the EU remained high during the premiership of Boris Johnson, amid anger in Brussels as the Government sought to backtrack on post-Brexit regulations for Northern Ireland and repeated threats to tear up the carefully negotiated deal for the region.


However, many Conservatives acknowledged the benefits of the Horizon scheme and it was hoped that a solution to the post-Brexit impasse in Northern Ireland could help forge a path for a UK return.


Rishi Sunak secured a long-awaited deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol in February in a major boost to relations with the EU.


Many expected that the Windsor Framework could mean a relatively swift UK return to Horizon. Now, seven months later, a deal has finally been agreed.


Is there going to be UK-EU co-operation on other areas?


It is not just Horizon the UK is joining. The Government has also agreed to join the EU’s Copernicus space programme, although it will not take part in the bloc’s nuclear technology scheme Euratom.


There remain plenty of Eurosceptics on the Conservative backbenches and Mr Sunak – an original Brexiteer – is unlikely to want to do anything that would be seen as drawing the UK back into the EU’s orbit.


Nonetheless, he has shown a willingness to pursue better relations with the EU and the decision to join Horizon is unlikely to cause the Prime Minister much of a political headache.


Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who took part in many of the talks that led to the breakthrough on Northern Ireland, said the move is what “effective engagement with Europe looks like”.


How much does it cost?


Britain will contribute around £2.2 billion (almost 2.6 billion euros) per year to participate in both Horizon and the Copernicus space programme from January 1, when its association membership with the projects begins.


But the Government has been keen to stress that it represents good value for UK taxpayers.


The UK will not have to pay into the scheme for the two years it was frozen out, while the deal also includes a “clawback” mechanism that will allow the UK to be compensated if British scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.

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